In June and July each year more than 15 million exam scripts are marked and each August, more than 7 million results are issued to students.
We know that getting the right result is very important to students and teachers; that's why we've put it at the heart of everything we do. And by 'right result' we don't just mean getting the right number of marks or grade – it has to be an accurate reflection of a student's ability too.
Here you can find out what we are already doing to get it right, as well as how we are continuously improving what we do.
You can also watch our short film which explains why marking some subjects is more challenging than others and what research tells us about how to make marking as accurate and reliable as possible.
One of the strengths of the English exam system is that it allows us to assess students' abilities by asking them to do specific tasks as part of their exam or coursework. This makes the assessment more valid than if students were only answering short factual or multiple choice questions.
Some of these tasks include:
- writing prose
- drawing graphs
- constructing arguments
- speaking a language.
Of course marking these tasks is not as straight-forward as marking multiple choice questions, so we need to rely on our markers' professional judgment in deciding which mark best reflects the standard of the work.
To guide their judgements and make sure they are consistent, we set out the criteria for awarding marks in the mark scheme. We then continuously check that their marking is compliant. This all means we need to get our assessments and mark schemes right.
Getting it right from the start
Our intention is to 'bake in quality from the start' - so getting our assessments and mark schemes right when we first design them, rather than having to fix things further down the line.
As we, and other exam boards, are busy developing new GCSEs and A-levels as part of Government reforms, we are also reviewing the design of our assessments and mark schemes.
Using evidence from research by our world-leading experts at AQA's Centre for Education Research and Practice (CERP), we have been able to make changes where we think they will bring about greater reliability and consistency of marking.
Some of this includes:
- basic things, like having enough marks on a paper and not having questions no one can answer
- more complicated things, like understanding how the exam paper and the mark scheme work together.
Designing assessments that accurately test different ranges of ability means students are more likely to get the right grade, and markers are much clearer about how many marks reflect the standard of the work they are assessing.
Getting the right people
As we are relying on markers to use their professional judgement, we need to make sure we have the right people in place. Our examiners are qualified teachers who are teaching, or have recently taught, the subject they are marking.
Examiners and AQA colleagues who develop assessments also go through rigorous training so they are up to date with the latest research and developments in assessment design.
How papers are marked
While examiners are experts in their subjects, they have different levels of experience when it comes to marking. So we have strict quality controls in place and check marking along the way, whether marking is paper-based (traditional) or online.
Here is a brief overview of the process and quality controls for both.
Before marking starts, all examiners attend standardisation meetings so they fully understand the mark scheme and where to award marks. This helps ensure the marking is consistent across the subject.
Depending on how the exam papers (scripts) are marked, there are different ways of checking. Here is some of what we do.
- A senior examiner checks the marking for the first 10 scripts to make sure the marker is following the mark scheme.
- When the marker is halfway through their allocated scripts, the senior examiner checks another 15 marked scripts.
- If the senior examiner has any concerns, they review additional papers and decide if the marker is able to continue or if the papers should be given to another marker.
When marking starts, certain answers are 'seeded' and the marking for these answers is automatically reviewed. This is how it works:
- the answer is marked and the mark agreed by all the senior examiners for that subject
- it is then given to the team of markers to mark
- the system compares the mark they award to the mark previously agreed
- if the mark is different, the system detects this and marking is stopped
- a senior examiner is alerted and intervenes before marking can continue
- if incorrect marking recurs, all the answers are reviewed by another marker and any unmarked answers are also given to someone else to mark.
We are moving more of our marking online, as our research shows that it increases reliability. For example:
- different questions are sent to different markers so the final mark for any exam paper is the professional judgement of a number of experts
- we can monitor marking as it happens.
We continue checking marking up until results are published. After that date, if teachers and students are unhappy with their marks, they can apply for a review of marking or other post-results services.
Review of marking and marking quality
There has been in an increase in the number of review of marking requests over the past few years. However, this increase doesn't mean the quality of marking is getting worse, for example:
- there is little difference in the percentage of mark and grade changes year-on-year
- mark changes are usually by only one or two marks
- most grade changes tend to be on the boundary.
This increase in requests is more likely to be because people understand the system better, and they are more prepared to challenge when a student has missed a grade by a mark or two.
We have had some success in reducing the size of our mark changes in recent years, but sometimes we do get it wrong. We realise that every mark and grade change is significant for the student and teacher involved and we are doing everything we can to make a large-scale system, which involves an element of human judgement, as accurate and reliable as possible.
Improving quality of marking
Because we recognise how important getting the right result is for everyone, we are always looking to improve, using research evidence to build on what works well and learning from mistakes. This includes analysing the performance of all our papers, processes and examiners after each exam series and taking on board feedback.
In June 2014, we launched a new initiative to improve marking quality. You can also read about it in the TES: Exam markers to get advance information about pupil performance
Understanding how exams work
Read about how exams work and watch our animations explaining how: