The re-marking lottery

27 August 2007
The Times Educational Supplement

Any experienced Head of Department knows that results’ day can be a nightmare. The worst problem to deal with is the sobbing student, often accompanied with the angry parent, brandishing a tear-stained results’ slips, exclaiming in loud and outraged tones that there’s no way he or she could have got their sub-standard score, and that the examiner must have got it wrong. It’s usually at this point that many teachers might suggest that the candidate should apply to the examination board to have the exam re-marked. In my current school, a large comprehensive in outer London, candidates have to pay to have their script assessed again: the school simply cannot afford the cost of re-paying for re-marks. This is the case in most schools: re-marking is a very expensive business. Depending upon the board and the exam, fees for GCSE remarks are usually £23 or more while A Level re-marks are £35+. This is merely the cost for having a script re-assessed for the first time: if a candidate isn’t happy with that re-assessment and asks for their script to be looked at for a second time by a more senior examiner, the fee rises yet again usually to £78. If, after that, a candidate still isn’t happy, then he or she may have his script scrutinised by the independent Examination Appeals Board, and this will cost in the region of £130. If a script’s mark is changed, then the fees are waived, but nevertheless it is quite nerve-wracking to “gamble” all this money on a mark being changed.[1]

 

Year on year, the demand for re-marks has increased by thousands. In 2003, 38,440 GCSE scripts were re-marked[2]; last year, the figure was 62,397[3]. That’s an increase of 23,957. I expect this year the figure will be even higher. Savvy and wealthy pupils, parents (and schools) have noticed that while the number of candidates asking for re-marks has ballooned, the percentage of candidates having their marks changed has remained approximately the same. In 2003, roughly 25% of students — just over 10,000 candidates — had their grades changed because of re-marks[4]. In 2006, the figure was more or less the same at 23% with 14, 197 candidates having their grades altered[5]. Either that means exam marking has become a lot worse, or a vigilant candidates have unearthed a great deal more sloppy marking. These statistics give every incentive to a disgruntled candidate to contest their marks if they have money to burn: nearly a quarter of grades are changed when they are challenged.

   

The only way to stop the rot is to ban individual re-marks altogether. At the moment, the system overwhelmingly benefits wealthier students who can afford to pay the exorbitant fees that are required to have a script re-marked. They are beginning to milk the system in ever increasing numbers, playing the re-mark lottery in the hope that their grade will go up. Instead, there needs to be a much fairer system all round. With A Levels, candidates need to secure places at universities much earlier, perhaps gaining acceptance to colleges with their AS results and so there isn’t this mad stampede for re-marks if they fail to attain the right grades for their preferred institutions. And with all of the exams, the Examination Appeals Board (EAB) should step in much earlier if there has been

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