It is a task faced by teachers and moderators of GCSE English papers every year and now under much scrutiny after Offal’s report on this year’s English GCSE results. So how exactly are the marks awarded? This is the inside story from the BBC…
GCSEs are divided into exams, which are marked by boards, and “controlled assessments” – similar to what used to be called coursework, but different because work is completed under exam conditions.
Controlled assessments are graded by teachers using a mark scheme prepared by the principal examiner and a panel of subject teachers, who set out “the kind of answers anticipated”.
A “degree of subjectivity” is used in the marking of creative pieces – however a moderation process is intended to ensure fairness.
After internal moderation in each school, the results are then sent to exam boards along with samples for moderation. Grades are assigned at the later date by the exam board once further moderation and checks are completed.
It is this assignment of grade boundaries, however, which has sparked a well-publicised row over whether the grade bands were unfairly altered in 2012.
Exam boards stand accused of setting the grade boundaries too generously in January and too harshly in June. It resulted in a slight fall in the number of pupils achieving at least a C-grade, from 65.4% to 63.9% this summer.
Obtaining a C-grade in GCSE English is a crucial benchmark required for pupils wanting to continue their studies at A-level or further education college.
But a C grade or above in GCSE English is also a key element on which national league tables are based, increasing pressure on teachers to ensure their students get the best results possible.
In exam regulator Ofqual’s final report on the issue, it was suggested that teachers in England were “significantly” over-marking pupils’ GCSE English work this summer in order to boost results.
But some teachers believe the subjective nature of the marking system in English is at the heart of the problem.
Edward Marsh, a teacher at the Glyn School in Surrey, said: “The problem with the mark scheme is that there is a huge degree of personal interpretation involved.
“Markers have to determine what are ‘relevant quotes’ from an attached passage, but given the direction a student’s answer is heading a quote may become relevant.
“Problems are compounded with suggested marking guidelines such as identifying ‘significant’ evaluation. At what point does evaluation become significant?”
Others in the profession are adamant that teachers should not be to blame.
David Blow, head teacher at Ashcombe School in Surrey and member of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) data group, told the BBC: “Moderation wasn’t done tightly enough. Marking is being used as a smokescreen for the real issue.
“It is more difficult to mark a piece of creative writing than a maths question… and in good faith, in marking a piece of English, there will be a spread of teacher opinion.
“But there’s nothing new about marking a piece of creative work. There was a failure to moderate properly,” he added.
More at: GCSE English: How is it marked?