This month and next contain a number of big days for GCSE students. My big day is 23 May when candidates up and down the land will be sitting AQA English Literature 47102. I have signed up to mark 300 scripts.
I met a few of my fellow prospective markers at a meeting in London last month. Its purpose was to familiarise new examiners with the procedures and marking schemes for this paper – and to give a little prior training and practice in the application of the Mark Scheme Template.
The coming challenge is easy to describe – but not so easy to meet. It consists of mapping the actuality of what candidates write to a series of carefully discriminated and weighted Assessment Objectives; and using a template to convert the map into a score. The good examiner is not just one who is neither too lenient nor too harsh (though this would be ideal) – but more essentially one who is most consistent in the application of the scheme – regardless of whether appearing lenient or harsh compared to others overall.
So, what I have to do between now and 23 May (or very soon after) is learn, more-or-less by rote, the 6 gradations (for 6 is the number of mark bands) within each Assessment Objective for Literature.
For example Assessment Objective 1 is response to text. The degree and sophistication of response or responses can be: i/ ‘simple’, ii/ ‘some clear’, iii/ ‘supported’, iv/ ‘explained’, v/ ‘sustained’, vi/ ‘considered/qualified’. Marks are allocated proportionally along the scale.
The other Assessment Objectives, each with six similar gradations, are details, methods, meanings, linkage (between texts), and selection for comparison.
As a system one can admire the beauty of the distinctions – and only guess at the number of committee-hours that must have gone into its making and refining. As a tool to aid marking it could scarcely at first sight be less handy. No reader uses such a mulitplicity of criteria to form judgments. No teacher marks a pupil’s work thus. But that is not, of course, the point.
The point for the examination board, with a national exercise of assessment to carry out in a few weeks, and the certainty of intense scrutiny should anything go wrong, is to determine as nearly as possible a consistent standard of marking by its hundreds of markers all working in isolation.
English Literature is considered to be one of the more ‘subjective’ subjects in the curriculum. But the theory of marking the paper is, that provided each marker adheres to the scheme, and is trained, tested, and passed in its use at an early stage in the exercise, subjectiveness or variance in examiners’ responses will be reduced to a minimum. Any anomalies that emerge after marks and grades are eventually awarded will probably be due to examiner failing – impatience, fatigue, the pressure of unforeseen events bearing in from outside. For the examiner, the marking scheme and its implementation will comprise a three-week, day-in day-out examination.
However, let us not be too pessimistic. If you are reading this as an examinee, or with an examinee in mind, I believe, on the whole, you are right to think that the chances of being fairly graded by the system are quite high.
But if it should, alas, turn out not to be the case (and no one will know until late August) it could well be because something has gone wrong at the interface between marking scheme, examiner and script. It is said of many things that the devil is in the detail – and there certainly can be a devil of a lot of dismaying detail in a GCSE marking scheme.