A qualification is a way of demonstrating that someone has achieved a certain level of learning. It acts as a passport to the next stage in a student's life, whether they are entering the world of work or going on to further study or training
To gain a qualification, students often take examinations which assess their knowledge and skills at the end of their course. Exam boards award the grades for over 5 million GCSE qualifications and around 750,000 A-levels each year in England.
So how do students’ answers to an exam turn into a grade? There are two main stages: marking the exams and converting marks into final grades.
Here's how the process works.
Marking Exam Scripts
Marking exam scripts is an integral component of converting an exam into a qualification, comprising: training subject experts to mark exam scripts; assigning exam scripts to examiners and cross-checking marks between examiners.
When students sit at an exam they write their answers in a booklet. At the end of the exam, completed booklets – known as scripts – are sent to examiners for marking.
Examiners are subject experts and typically qualified teachers. Nonetheless, before examiners start marking, they are trained to mark to the required standard.
The exam marking period usually lasts for around 12 weeks. Throughout this time the examiners' work is rigorously checked to ensure their marking is consistent, fair and to the required standard.
As part of this checking process a sample of marking by each examiner is checked to ensure they are applying the mark scheme correctly and that students have been awarded the right marks. To this end, the examiners are provided with detailed feedback to ensure they keep on track. If an examiner is not marking in line with the agreed standards, they are not allowed to continue and their scripts are transferred to a different examiner.
Converting marks into grades
Once the exam scripts have been marked, it is time to set the grade boundaries. Although exam boards aim to set all papers with the same level of difficulty, papers do vary slightly. As it would be unfair for students to get a lower grade just because they sat a more difficult paper, grade boundaries are set for each individual exam
Administering grade boundaries is called “awarding” with the overall aim of ensuring that standards are maintained from one year to the next. Like markers, senior examiners are subject experts and the process is overseen by the qualifications regulator. Once the exam scripts have been marked, a group of senior examiners meet to set the grade boundaries.
After careful consideration, senior examiners decide what the minimum mark for each grade should be to ensure that standards are maintained. As part of this process, data and statistics are used to ensure grade boundary alignment across the exam boards. The exam board then applies the grade boundary to the marks each student achieved to produce their grade for the exam.
In a nutshell this whole process means that a student who performed to the same level should get the same grade whether they sat the exam in any other year. As well as being fair to students, this means the qualification will be valued by potential employers, colleges and universities.
This year’s grade boundary will be set taking account of the unprecedented disruption that students have experienced to their learning over the last two years and overall outcomes will be higher than they were in 2019.
So, after a student has put their pen down and packed away all their things, examiners are working hard to make sure they are awarded the grade they deserve in the fairest way possible.