« | Home | »

Grade Deflation

Tags: | |

In 2007, the summer after I graduated from university, I applied to be a marker for Edexcel, the GCSE exam board. The selection process involved online tests and training days, but wasn’t particularly rigorous. I think everyone in my cohort was accepted. We were all invited to a team-building lunch in Bloomsbury, where we met the people who would oversee our marking. My boss was a retired lecturer from Australia who joined Edexcel, he told me, to keep his mind sprightly, and because he believed in maintaining standards. I told him I’d applied to be a marker because I was broke.

Each of us was assigned a single question (I think mine was about the war poets), and we sat in front of our computers reading digital scans of hundreds of essays and working out how many of the ‘assessment criteria’ – an opaque series of qualities outlined in a document thick with jargon – had been met. The marks we awarded weren’t directly related to the final grades the pupils got, we were told, as grade boundaries would be tweaked to ensure standardisation. I was paid 32 pence per paper.

The system was structured so that the exam board could pretend that grades, inherently arbitrary and subjective, were based on something other than the whims of an examiner, or the last-minute dictats of a committee. Every so often a random sample would be glanced over by our supervisors, and a smaller sample of these would be passed on up the chain. I was censured a few times for being too stingy. In the end I gave the highest marks to answers I found particularly funny or audacious.

In January Michael Gove said that grade inflation ‘discredits the integrity of our education system’:

The real achievements of children on the ground became debased and devalued because Labour education secretaries sounded like Soviet commissars praising the tractor production figures when we know that those exams were not the rock-solid measures of achievement that children deserve.

This year, for the first time since the exam was introduced, the rate of A-C grade GCSE passes in English went down, costing many pupils their places at sixth-form college. Gove denies any direct interference.

Last week OFQUAL published its initial report into the affair, finding that examiners had ‘acted properly’ and that the lower grades awarded to students who completed their exams in June rather than in January ‘were right’. Pupils who had sat their exams early had simply ‘got lucky’.

Yesterday the Times Educational Supplement released a leaked series of horribly written letters between the Director of Standards and Research at OFQUAL and the Head of Recognition and Standards at Edexcel. The letters offer a masterclass in suggestive coercion:

You say that you will make changes if we ask you to. I need to remind you of a regulatory requirement, part of the regulation framework that exam boards are all signed up to. Like other exam boards, Edexcel is obliged to make sure that its results are consistent with those of other boards… And so it is not that we must ask, but that you must make sure that the grades are comparable.

Under the new grade boundaries, 140 schools that didn’t meet government exam targets may be closed down or converted to academies. This morning Gove told the education select committee that the January results were ‘unfortunate’ for OFQUAL, but stressed that it was an independent body and blamed the confusion on the previous government. OFQUAL have denied that any political pressure was put on them to increase the grade boundaries, but perhaps Gove didn’t need to ask.

Comments on “Grade Deflation”

  1. Geoff Roberts says:

    I have been an examiner for the I.B. Programme for several years. The basic idea behind the International Baccalaureate is a good one – transportable university entrance exams recognised across the globe, but they have now gone over to electronic marking (probably with a system similar to the one you used) and this has some serious disadvantages. One advantage is that you don’t get huge parcels of papers to mark delivered to your door, but that does not compensate for the confrontation with ‘standards’ and with a system that permanently checks on your evaluations. The theory is ‘positive marking’ (what’s right, not what’s wrong) but if the programme doesn’t like your mark then you are thrown out. There is no explanation – the mark is ‘outside the boundaries’ (set by whom?) and there you go. Like all schools that have to submit to these demands international schools want good results. It’s a classical goalpost system – if your students do too well we just move the goalposts. In Germany the university entrance exam is generally marked by the teachers who have taught the class, plus a little outside supervision. Education authorities would do well to follow this model. No profit-making companies living off the work of others.

  2. bilejones says:

    As a recovering Private Bankster who ran a derivatives desk, back when Wall St. was merely corrupt around the margins, I can tell you that rules never apply to banks. At least in their own minds.

Comment on this post

Log in or register to post a comment.


  • Recent Posts

    RSS – posts

  • Contributors

  • Recent Comments

    • mideastzebra on Swedish-Israeli Tensions: Avigdor Liberman was not foreign minister November 2015.
    • lars hakanson on Exit Cameron: Europe will for good reason rejoice when the UK elects to leave. The country has over the years provided nothing but obstacles to European integration...
    • Michael Schuller on Immigration Scandals: The Home Office is keen to be seen to be acting tough on immigration, although I'm not sure that the wider project has anything to do with real number...
    • Geoff Roberts on What happened in Cologne?: The most surprising thing about the events in Cologne (and the most disturbing) is that some 600 incidents of theft, harrasment and rape were reported...
    • EmilyEmily on What happened in Cologne?: The author's argument is straightforward: Sexual violence is one beast; fears about migrants is another - let's not confuse the two. Alfalfa's poin...

    RSS – comments

  • Contact

  • Blog Archive

  • From the LRB Archive

    Chris Lehmann: The Candidates
    18 June 2015

    ‘Every one of the Republican candidates can be described as a full-blown adult failure. These are people who, in most cases, have been granted virtually every imaginable advantage on the road to success, and managed nevertheless to foul things up along the way.’

    Hugh Pennington:
    The Problem with Biodiversity
    10 May 2007

    ‘As a medical microbiologist, for example, I have spent my career fighting biodiversity: my ultimate aim has been to cause the extinction of harmful microbes, an objective shared by veterinary and plant pathologists. But despite more than a hundred years of concentrated effort, supported by solid science, smallpox has been the only success.’

    Jeremy Harding: At the Mexican Border
    20 October 2011

    ‘The battle against illegal migration is a domestic version of America’s interventions overseas, with many of the same trappings: big manpower commitments, militarisation, pursuit, detection, rendition, loss of life. The Mexican border was already the focus of attention before 9/11; it is now a fixation that shows no signs of abating.’

    James Meek: When the Floods Came
    31 July 2008

    ‘Last July, a few days after the floods arrived, with 350,000 people still cut off from the first necessity of life, Severn Trent held its annual general meeting. It announced profits of £325 million, and confirmed a dividend for shareholders of £143 million. Not long afterwards the company, with the consent of the water regulator Ofwat, announced that it wouldn’t be compensating customers: all would be charged as if they had had running water, even when they hadn’t.’

Advertisement Advertisement