Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Myths of the tough examiner explored

"I failed my exam because the examiners were tough this year."

"This exam board is tougher than that one."

Surprisingly, it does not actually work the way that these comments suppose. Examiners do not start (or finish) the process with a policy to be harsh or strict, unless there is significant political interference with the process, which could undermine public confidence in the exam system.

Where you start, ideally, is with a benchmark, sometimes called a 'descriptor'. As the name indicates this categorisation attempts to describe the kind of work that is deemed appropriate in each category:  e.g. 'A' = excellent: independent thinking and critical skills, high level of subject knowledge of all the topics outlined in the syllabus/curriculum. The benchmarks in turn ought correspond to national subject standards. When these have been agreed, everyone in the process has to stick to them.

There are also international standards of comparison, so the subject field is, in fact, open to scrutiny. There is some evidence that exams are getting easier, rather than harsher. (See below) And there is some limited, early evidence that requirements are being toughened up, for political reasons (See below)  But the main point is that the examiners traditionally started from a position of wanting to find out how much you know, rather than what you don't know. These are quite different approaches.

Some boards, or some subjects, may appear to have better pass rates but that really just reflects the quality, training and preparation of the candidates, and the schools collectively, who enter the exam.

So, harsh as it seems, there is seldom a policy of harsh marking. Examiners, like the candidates, have to stick to clearly defined guidelines that operated before, during, and after, the coursework or exam scripts are presented. Political interference in that process would be unjust.

So there is not, in fact, a strict quota, for example, of how many will pass or fail. A rationing system does not exist. Theoretically, everyone would be awarded an A*, if everyone produced work of that quality in that year. This would never happen. But can you imagine the headlines in the media, and the claims of dumbing down? Typically, slight boundary shifts would compensate for evidence that the exam had been tougher, rather than less difficult. In that way no one would lose as a result of slight variations year by year.

Pass rates have actually been increasing in all subjects for thirty years and this arguably reflects improved teaching, more students working harder, and answers that are more narrowly and specifically tied to the syllabus. These features of current teaching may mean that you are missing out on the broader educational enrichment that I enjoyed as a child, but it does mean that you will have more certificates, with better grades on them, than I achieved!

There are many reasons why students fail to meet the grade; see my other blogs on this site for more information on these topics.

Dr Ian McCormick

See also:

English GCSEs marked down to curb grade inflation, say teachers

Have GCSEs got easier?

Michael Gove is preparing to replace GCSEs with more difficult exams similar to O-levels, according to leaked documents. But have GCSEs got easier? James Ball and James Randerson find out. Join the debate below the line


  1. I marked GCSE exams for 8 years or so (Eng Lit Higher tier) and they do move the grade boundaries if more A* or other bulges leads them to suppose that the exam was easier or harder than normal. Not a quota exactly but they certainly would never give 100% A* -the descriptors, I guess, would be refined or interpreted so that didn't happen.

    I was always impressed though with the level of supervision I received as an examiner - how often my marking was checked and sampled.

  2. Early reports this year suggest that as a result of political interference there has been a significant shift in boundaries between C and D grades in English.

  3. Guradian reports ...

    If grade boundaries have been shifted to make exams harder to pass, as some teachers’ leaders suggest, the effect has been modest.

    Here are the figures for those key subjects English, science and maths.


    A*: 3.4% (down 1.4 percentage points compared to last year)
    A: 11.6% (down 0.6)
    B: 20.5% (up 0.3)
    C: 28.7% (up 0.4)
    D: 20.9% (down 0.7)
    E: 9.3% (up 1.1)
    F: 3.7% (up 0.4)
    G: 1.2% (up 1.3)
    U: 0.7% (down 0.6)

    English literature

    A*: 5.8% (down 0.4 percentage points compared to last year)
    A: 17.4% (down 1.6)
    B: 28.2% (down 0.7)
    C: 25.1% (up 0.5)
    D: 13.9% (up 1.3)
    E: 5.5% (up 0.7)
    F: 2.3% (up 0.5)
    G: 1% (up 0.2)
    U: 0.8% (down 0.5)


    A*: 5.3% (up 0.2 percentage points compared to last year)
    A: 10% (down 1.4)
    B: 14.9% (down 0.7)
    C: 28.1% (up 1.4)
    D: 18.3% (up 0.9)
    E: 10.1% (down 0.7)
    F: 7.2% (down 0.3)
    G: 4.4% (up 0.5)
    U: 1.7% (up 0.1)

    Dr Ian McCormick

  4. Ziggy Liaquat, the managing director of Edexcel, said:

    The quality of work required to achieve an A grade this year is the same as the quality of work required to achieve an A grade last year.