How exams work
Find out what goes into getting the right results to students. Our overview takes you through the steps, from designing our qualifications all the way through to results day.
Creating a qualification
Our qualifications are based on specifications that set out:
- the key skills, knowledge and understanding students are expected to have gained by the end of the course
- how these will be assessed to give a valid and reliable measure of what students have achieved.
When we design a specification, we aim to balance what works in a classroom with what can be accurately assessed and marked. It must also be relevant and enable students to progress to the next stage of their lives.
We do this by:
- finding out what teachers want
- talking to other stakeholders, such as universities and employers
- combining this feedback with our subject knowledge and assessment expertise gained through research.
When we have created our new specification, or changed an existing one, we submit it to the exams regulator, Ofqual, for accreditation. Ofqual makes sure the specification meets their criteria.
Watch our animation showing how a specification is created.
Our subject experts set exam papers which test how well students can demonstrate that they have acquired the skills, knowledge and understanding set out in the specification. At the same time, they also put together the mark scheme, which acts as a guide for the examiners who will mark papers.
Watch our animation showing how a question paper is created.
Nearly 1.4 million students sit our exams each summer. When we know how many students are taking a particular exam, we make sure we have the right number of:
- examiners to do the marking - our examiners are usually all qualified teachers with teaching experience in the subject they are marking
- exam papers and answer booklets, which are sent to schools and colleges for safekeeping until the day of the exam.
At the end of each exam, the exams officer at the school or college sends off the completed booklets, known as scripts. They either go to be scanned and marked online or are sent to the examiner who will be marking that paper.
The summer marking period usually lasts around 12 weeks. During that time, our examiners mark more than seven million scripts.
To ensure that their marking is fair, accurate and to the required standard, we have controls in place. These include:
- standardisation - before examiners start marking, they attend standardisation meetings so they fully understand the mark scheme and where to award marks
- regular checking - throughout the marking period, our highly experienced senior examiners review samples of marking by each examiner. If any examiner is not marking correctly, they can't continue marking and their scripts are given to another examiner.
Setting the grade boundaries
When all the papers have been marked, our senior examiners and subject experts set the grade boundaries for each paper and any controlled assessment or coursework that counts towards the qualification. This process is called awarding.
During awarding, senior examiners and the subject experts look at:
- scripts with marks that are close to the grade boundaries from the previous year and the current year - this is to make sure the standard is the same for all students, whichever year they take the exam
- statistical evidence, for example the performance in earlier tests for all the students who took the exam and the overall results predicted by teachers - this helps guide their judgement.
After careful consideration, the senior examiners decide what the minimum mark for each grade should be and it goes to Ofqual for approval. We then apply the grade boundaries to each student's marks to produce the grade they will receive.
Watch our animation that explains how grades are awarded.
You might also be interested in watching our video about 9–1 grading for new GCSEs on our 9–1 grading page.
On results days, students receive their provisional results slip with their grades for each subject. It is provisional because sometimes there is a genuine reason why a student hasn't got the result they expected. In this case, their school or college can apply for a re-mark as part of our post-results services. A re-mark doesn't always lead to a higher grade and in most cases there is no change or sometimes a lower grade is awarded.
Improving the exam system
We are always looking for ways to improve the way we do things because it really matters to us that all the students who sit our exams get the right results.
In June 2014, we launched our new initiative to improve marking quality. You can also read about it in the TES: Exam markers to get advance information about pupil performance
We are also working with teachers, teacher associations, Ofqual and the other awarding bodies to improve the exam system for everyone.