Schools and teachers are facing an unprecedented challenge as they grapple with assessing student grades in the absence of exams. In the first of a series, assessment specialist and Tes columnist Mark Enser suggests a few simple steps teachers should take if they want to make moderation as fair and as painless as possible
When it was announced at the beginning of 2021 that exams would be cancelled and that teachers would be trusted to award grades, it sounded as though this could all be done in a breezily simple way. Teachers would be trusted. We could have a think about how our pupils were doing and then assign them a grade that seemed reasonable. Easy. Now, several weeks into the process to create Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) things are looking anything but simple. Instead my life, and the lives of every secondary school teacher I know, has been dominated by writing assessments, marking assessments and then moderating assessments. All of these have created challenges but it is in moderation that I think my learning curve has been steepest.
The idea of a summative grade, the kind we award at GCSE, is that it should have a common meaning. A grade 6 awarded to a pupil here in my school should mean the same thing as a grade 6 awarded to a pupil at the other end of the country. We usually achieve this by setting the same exam paper, holding them in the same conditions and then ensuring they are marked in the same way. This year we won’t have that national standard approach, instead we are trying to create an internal consistency so that if I and a colleague both marked the same paper we would have arrived at the same result. This is not easy to achieve and takes a lot of time, but I think this year has taught me how to do moderation both better and quicker.
1. Standardise first
The idea of standardisation is to ensure that everyone has the same understanding of the mark scheme before they begin ploughing through a pile of papers. Mark schemes can be so vague that it is very easy for two people to reach very different conclusions about how many marks to award an answer. So, mark a couple of papers first and then sit down together to see where these differences in interpretation may have been. There is nothing worse than noticing this after everything has been marked and then having to go back through to re-mark a paper.
2. Divide and rule
One way to avoid differences in interpretation of the mark scheme is to reduce the number of people marking each paper. Rather than marking every paper for the classes you teach, you may be better off dividing them up so that different teachers mark different papers. That way internal consistency is much more likely. It doesn’t matter if that one teacher is interpreting that mark scheme more harshly than you would have done as long as they are being consistently harsh. Some moderation is still needed, but this then becomes about checking that over time the marker wasn’t become more grumpy, tired or bored and so marked differently.
3. Don’t take it personally
If you are marking your own classes work, think you have found a wonderful answer, and then someone else comes along and pulls it apart, it is very easy to feel it is an attack on both your teaching (which led to that answer) and your marking (which they think is wrong). We need to keep in mind that mark schemes can be strange and esoteric documents which sometimes suggest only a very particular answer will do. Its not you, its them.
4. Don’t quibble
One of the biggest lessons I have had to learn about moderation is the utter impossibility of ever reaching complete consistency between teachers. There will always be a case where one person would have awarded 4 out of 8 marks and someone else 5 or 6. This is because there is a great deal of subjectivity in marking. A report from Ofqual found that 1 in every 4 grades awarded by their highly trained examiners was ‘wrong’ (as defined as agreeing with the senior examiner). This was even more of a problem in some subjects than others (a good breakdown of the variations can be found here). The upshot is that there is little point in arguing over each mark awarded and instead look at patterns. Is anyone consistently marking more leniently or harshly over the entire paper? A mark up here and down there will hopefully average out over the entire paper.
Although I am now approaching the end of the TAG treadmill the lessons I have learnt about moderation will stay with me and I hope that they will made moderations after mock exams and other assessments a more effective and efficient process.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. He is also a TES columnist and author. He tweets at @EnserMark