Sunday, 4 November 2012

Cheating, bending rules or optimistic marking?

I read chunks of the recent Ofqual report on the English GCSE debacle. The media focused largely on the observation that teachers had a tendency to overmark controlled assessments and to try and get their students just over the C grade borderline. There were some persuasive graphs to demonstrate this. Some talked of cheating, others talked of bending rules and Glenys Stacey herself used the phrase "optimistic marking".

In passing, commentators did point out the obvious fact that it is the exam boards' job to moderate teachers' marking effectively and that over-generous marking should not affect grade outcomes.

Picture: Microsoft Office
In fact, the detailed and, I thought, balanced Ofqual analysis probably emphasised a different point entirely: namely that the whole English assessment regime was flawed and that accountability measures put so much pressure on teachers that they felt almost obliged to mark generously. Evidence from the TES forum was used in the report to support this notion.

Now, my department and I  met on regular occasions after school to moderate our own speaking assessments and some of you may have had the same feelings as us: because we were aware that that the exam board (AQA in this case) gave some leeway in terms of acceptable marks, when we were torn between two marks we would tend to award the higher one. Our reasoning was that we had to be fair to the candidate and we had allow the board to do their job of moderation if it were needed. We also had in the back of our mind that we wanted the best grades for the department. As it happened, our marks were never moderated down or up and we were quite thorough and fair in how we assessed candidates.

Teachers usually, and correctly, err on the generous side and if that generosity pushes a candidate from an expected D to a C, then so be it.

Overall, Ofqual were right to highlight the consequences of high stakes accountability, modular entries and controlled assessment. But controlled assessment was poorly conceived in the first place, unreliable and no great improvement on coursework. That was not the fault of teachers or awarding bodies.

In an ideal world we would let teachers do continual assessment, but if accountability measures are to mean anything, then we will have to, reluctantly, rely on more "objective" terminal examinations. No assessment system is perfect.

I read elsewhere that foreign educationalists marvel at the complexity and rigour of our school monitoring and tracking systems. They must also look disbelievingly at our bureacratic, expensive and unnecessary 16+ examination system.


  1. Very even-handed post - much more so than I (would) find myself able to be... I think you are dead right; what do the DfE / Ofqual etc. really expect to *be* the result of the "system" they have built. Time for a ground-up rehash, I am afraid... :(

  2. Thanks for the comment, Alex.

    Yes. Don't get me wrong. Ofqual messed up in January and they should carry the can if moderation is inadequate. In the introductory letter accompanying the report they admit they should have been smarter.

    A Frankenstein monster has been created.

    IMHO it is time to broaden A-levels and do away with GCSE entirely.