Grade Deflation

Jon Day

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.


  • 14 September 2012 at 2:35pm
    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.

  • 19 September 2012 at 11:26pm
    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.