To mark it, to mark it…

Hilary Moriarty looks back at marking as a teacher, and ponders what the future could hold for exams

A great responsibility, marking. When you think of it, how dare we?

How dare they, the big anonymous ‘marking factories’ of exam boards, awarding grades on work produced by hundreds of pupils all over the country, in wholly different circumstances from each other and from the markers – and even if that were so, would it matter? Parents divorcing? A bad night producing a roaring hangover on the day of the exam? “Please sir, I don’t feel quite myself,” “Tough, sunshine – here’s the paper.”

It seems to me now that my country grammar school had a completely cavalier attitude to marking, supported by random expectations of heads of department.

The head of English refused to set written work or mark essays saying that he spent all his time preparing lessons – not that his doing so was terribly visible as we worked our way through inexpert readings of Ant and Cleo, making sure we really knew the plot. Asked how we might prepare for the exam, the reply was always, “Read the text – if you know the text, they can ask you anything!”

Very true. No matter if manipulating and offering the best answer you could contrive was a whole new skill in itself, better consciously taught and diligently learned than presumed to be present in the student at point of entry.

So, two A-level years of no English essays to be written or context questions to be practised, occasional history essays about 20 pages long because they were actually – and even I thought obviously – indiscriminate copying out of the textbook, never commented on by our history man, any further than to compliment me on my handwriting. I still want to go ‘aargh!’ when I think of it.

And don’t ask about Latin. No essays at all, though the exam paper required them – just endless translation and memorising of the Aeneid Book 6. I remember that finding essay questions on the paper was a complete surprise. And no, we did not complain. And actually, we did pass.

My first encounter with paying attention to the whole exam business came with a new teacher back in my history class. A whip-smart young woman arrived to replace our own history man, allegedly gone with a nervous breakdown. And she threw our 20-page essays back at us – “I know a lump of textbook when I see it. Now, answer the question in a 35-minute essay. Got it?”

Little Miss Helpful

I was a fulsome marker in my own teaching days – here was the space/time/requirement to ‘talk’ to each student personally, and I did. Actually, writing commentary for individual work made whole class lessons personal. Giving back a stack of essays was almost painful – did they agree with my analysis and advice, personally tailored? If it’s good, can they reproduce that in exam circumstances? If not so good, can they take advice and act on it? I felt a bit like Little Miss Helpful – not then invented, maybe I was the prototype?

I was a head of department when mixed ability classes arrived in the early days of comprehensivisation. Giddy with the difficulty of teaching completely mixed-ability classes, we invented a new marking scheme to cope with the wide variation of ability which could leave some youngsters seldom rising above a D grade.

For their first piece of written work, mark the piece with an M and appropriate comment on how to improve. Thereafter, each student should be aiming to do better, and score a letter higher than their own baseline. From M to A in one term – magic! I thought it was such a good idea. No one else liked it. At all.

Back to the drawing board. Mixed ability cohorts forced change. I was an HoD when coursework arrived, to be produced over time, hopefully improving and offering evidence of increased skills and knowledge of representative texts, and possibly sheltering parental input.

In my day, exam boards were inscrutable bodies, keeping their cards very close to their collective chests and issuing quite brief notes about the exams they had set and their conviction that they were fair and reasonable

English lit had morphed into US lit; with strong candidates reading To Kill a Mockingbird and weaker students contending with Of Mice and Men. I once asked a head of English why his ‘top class’ (his definition) wasn’t reading – say – Austen or Dickens? He said, “Why would I do that? Text won’t affect their grade. They can get the highest grade with the shortest text – why would you bother with anything else?”

To challenge the highest achievers? “Yeah, but why?”

Argument about lighter texts being included so the exam could cover the range of a cohort’s ability merely opened the door to grabbing the lowest common denominator for all. You’d be stupid to do anything else.

Giving all texts parity, at the same time as abolishing the CSE qualification gave rise to much musing about how you could tailor courses and their final exams for all abilities. Sadly for English lit – a personal view here – one device has been to require specific information from examinees rather than opinions.

I have seen a student come up with a one word answer such as ‘a metaphor’ and be greeted by the teacher telling her that just to put that word into an answer would gain a mark – ‘A tick in the margin for that, and a mark… now where can we find another one?’ And the class trawls merrily through the text seeking metaphors not because of their value to the text, the colour and life and association they may offer to the poem, but just to get the tick and the mark and not be subject to any unpredictable penchant of the examiner and the exam board.

And of course, not debatable in any query about the mark given when the candidate demands a re-mark.

In my day, exam boards were inscrutable bodies, keeping their cards very close to their collective chests and issuing quite brief notes about the exams they had set and their conviction that they were fair and reasonable. Finding out what they really wanted was only possible if you turned coat and joined their ranks. Thus, in the interest of knowing more about the whole business, I have examined English lang and lit at CSE, GCE, GCSE and A-level – invaluable experience, every HoD should examine at least once.

The next question is, if they had that experience, would it have made the summer of 2020 any easier to manage? How many HoDs reviewed their predictions of A-level grades, crossed their fingers and vowed to be very careful with next year’s mock assessments? Or, of course, the opposite – shiny A grades all round – and why not? Let university work out if it was a legitimate application from a plausible candidate, or a combination of ambition and ‘why not’ kite-flying on behalf of the school/pupil/parents.

And let’s not even pause to consider the walloping increases in first-class degrees now being awarded in what appears a rather cosy decision casting shades of glory on the student and the university – win-win all round and who could possibly grumble? It will be at least interesting to hear how many firsts are awarded in 2023.

Watch this space. You have been warned…

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