A whistle-stop guide to setting, marking and grading exams

Monday 12 Aug 2019

How does the exam process start?

The whole process began over a year ago, when we started to develop the questions for our exams. This involves many teams of people including our in-house subject and assessment experts, as well as senior examiners. At the same time we also create the mark schemes – these are the examiners’ guides for marking students’ answers.

The exams are finished – what happens next?

The answer booklets, called ‘scripts’, are marked by around 27,000 examiners, who are mostly current teachers. Most marking is done on-screen and anonymously, so the examiner doesn’t know anything about the student. In the vast majority of cases, scripts are broken up into individual questions which are sent to different examiners, so the final mark for the paper is the professional judgement of a number of experts. We train the examiners on how to use the mark scheme correctly and mark to the right standard.

How do you know that examiners are marking properly?

We check samples of answers as they’re being marked to make sure examiners are marking accurately and consistently. We also set hidden ‘test’ questions for examiners marking on screen. This means that, if any examiner isn’t getting it right, we can step in straight away - either providing more training, or giving the work to a different examiner to be marked. We’ve got lots of other quality control systems in place to ensure the marking is tightly monitored, including double marking, and we’re constantly adding to these systems to make them even stronger.

So, once the marking is finished, do you know what grades the students have?

No, not right away. Marking is just the first stage in the process and produces a total number of marks for each student’s assessment. The second stage is ‘awarding’ – this is where we set the boundaries which will determine the grades that each student will be awarded.

So what’s involved in awarding?

The aim of awarding is to ensure that subject standards are maintained from one year to the next.

To achieve this we set grade boundaries for each written exam and piece of controlled assessment/coursework/non-exam assessment. Awarding is carried out by senior examiners, who are advised by AQA’s own subject experts and research teams, and the process is overseen by the qualifications regulator, Ofqual.

When does awarding happen?

Once the exam scripts, and controlled assessment/coursework/non-exam assessment for a subject have been marked, a group of senior examiners recommends the minimum mark – ie the boundary – for each grade.

How are grade boundaries set?

First the senior examiners look at statistics, which show what the current group of students might be expected to achieve in the exam. Then they look at scripts from the previous year and the current year. They compare the scripts between the two years and weigh up the statistical evidence and their own judgement to recommend the mark for the current year's boundary. The final approval of all grade boundaries is made by an exam board’s Responsible Officer – at AQA, this is our Director of Research and Regulation, Alex Scharaschkin.

If the grade boundary is different this year, how can the standard be the same as last time?

The standard is the same from year to year, even if the grade boundary is different. It’s very difficult – probably impossible – to set papers of an identical level of demand each year. Setting a new grade boundary each year means we’re being fair to all students – it wouldn’t be fair if students got a lower grade just because they sat a more difficult paper, or got a higher grade because a paper was less difficult.

What happens when qualifications change?

All exam boards currently use a process for awarding that is regulated by Ofqual, usually called ‘comparable outcomes’. Basically, all things being equal, if the students taking exams in one year are of a similar ability to students from the previous year, we would expect overall results to be similar. In the same way, if the students are of different ability we would expect the overall results to be different. We use statistics based on students’ prior achievement to help us measure their ability, and therefore maintain the subject standards. This protects students during a period of change, like the recent reforms, as it wouldn’t be fair for a student to have an advantage or disadvantage simply because of which year they took the exam. This year Ofqual have also introduced National Reference Test evidence for setting GCSE English language and maths grade boundaries.

What happens after all the grade boundaries have been set?

Once all the grade boundaries have been set, we issue a result for each student in every exam they’ve taken. We send the results electronically to schools and colleges in time for them to give to their students on results days (15 August for A-level and 22 August for GCSE). We also send AS and A-level results to UCAS ahead of time to help the admissions process run smoothly.

For more information, listen to our Inside Exams podcast series.