A testing time for the examiners


Staff reporter (Leader Live)

OVER the summer, most pupils and students will be enjoying a few weeks free of study.

But at the back of many minds in Wrexham, Flintshire and Chester, whether they sat GCSEs, A levels or university exams, will be the looming spectre of results day.

It will be a different date depending on what exams were sat, but most of the result days fall in mid August.

Naturally, pupils, students and their parents will be more concerned about grades and marks than the examination paper itself.

But have you ever thought about what happens once the paper is handed in?

Topwood Ltd, based near Wrexham, is an information security company that has, in the past, provided information security services for Glyndwr University, as well as dozens more schools and colleges, and has also dealt with shredding exam papers.

Spokesman Tom Gilruth explained: “There are four principle stages in administering exam papers, regardless of the level of the test, from GCSE up to university exams.

“Firstly, blank scripts are sent out to schools and colleges where they remain sealed until the exam.

“Scripts are completed by students, sealed and collected at approved centres.”

You might think this was near the end of the road for the exam paper, with all its errors, doodles, rubbings out and (hopefully) correct answers. But they are not simply shipped out to examiners, although that is part of the journey.

John Elwyn Williams, 61, of Mold, a freelance examiner who has marked scripts for the Open University and the Welsh Joint Education Committee (WJEC), said: “I’ve been an examiner for 30 years – I started in the 1980s, I was teaching biology back then. Part of the reason I got the job was that I had teaching experience in the subject and I could mark in Welsh, which was an advantage. Some exam boards require you to have teaching experience.

“At one point, I was the only person marking Welsh language biology papers, but there’s more demand for it now.”

Mr Williams will typically take a delivery of 250 exam papers, mark a sample of 10 and then take them to a conference in Cardiff where the chief examiner will brief them on a number of issues.

Mr Williams said: “Basically, we discuss the standard to mark against, decide what constitutes a correct answer and what kind of answers we should expect, and talk about the specific words we should look out for.

“For instance, if you asked what functions the kidney had, water regulation should crop up.”

The chief examiner will look at the sample of 10 papers, but it is the examiner and not necessarily the pupils who go under scrutiny.

Mr Williams said: “What they’re looking for is to make sure you are consistent in your marking, that you follow the marking scheme and you are not awarding a mark for one response and then withholding it for the same response on another paper. It keeps it fair.”

Once the examiner’s sample marking is confirmed to be of a standard, they have two weeks to work their way through the other 240 scripts.

It’s a painstaking process.

Mr Williams said: “You have to be disciplined. You have to do some every day, so even if I know I’m going out, I’ll wake up early and finish 10 in the morning.

“I lock myself away for a bit. I don’t listen to the radio or have the TV on. You have to concentrate.”

Pupils don’t always make it easy for the examiner.

Mr Williams said: “The worst thing you can do is send in an illegible paper. In the worst case, we had to send a script back to a school, get the pupil to explain what they meant and type it up.

“The second worst thing is not to answer all the questions. If you only answer eight out of 10, the most you are going to get is 80 per cent. It’s also a good idea to read the question. If you are talking about the functions of blood, it’s no use writing about something different.”

Mr Williams was also invited to become a scrutineer, and plays a role in making sure the exam papers are phrased correctly and tie in properly with the syllabus.

He said: “You’ll have heard about horrifc mistakes made in exam papers.”

In 2011, Ofqual, the body that oversees examination standards in England and Northern Ireland found at least six mistakes in official examination papers set by several bodies.

One included a maths question in an OCR paper that was impossible to answer and a biology multiple choice question which didn’t include an option for the right answer with Edexcel.

Mr Williams said: “They would really kick my bottom if that happened, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s been quite straight forward at the WJEC.

“Of course, I can only do this because I no longer have links to teaching, even as a private tutor, so the questions I have scrutinised will not be leaked.”

Once the marked papers have been sent back to the chief examiner and the exam body, they are then scanned and stored by computer.

Tom Gilruth of data security company Topwood Ltd said: “The originals are transferred to a storage warehouse. The answered questions are sent to markers electronically and then returned online for collation.

“The results are issued back to students both electronically and on paper.”

However, this still isn’t the end.

Where an exam is scanned, stored and destroyed, a company like Topwood will take care of the papers and ensure all processes meet data protection regulations. After they have been completed and scanned, the papers will be safely kept at secure premises, for example at Edexcel’s warehouse in Hellaby, Yorkshire, until the end of the retention period.

The originals have to be kept in case there are appeals, failures of electronic systems, or other unforeseen problems with the papers.

A governing body like Ofqual will determine and audit the process for storage and determine the retention period.

Mr Gilruth said: “Exam bodies have a legal duty of care to securely destroy the papers.

“Again the governing bodies determine the levels of destruction – for example they may specify the size of the shredding. That could be to a strip cut, which is roughly to the size of a small USB stick, or the more modern cross-cut, which is approximately to the size of a drawing pin.”

Due to the sheer volume of shredding required, most sites will engage a professional shredding contractor.

Typically, a mobile shred truck will visit the site to destroy the existing copies.

Once shredded, the material is removed from the storage site in the back of the shred truck and taken for recycling, and a certificate of destruction or recycling is provided to the examination board.

That might be the end of the exam papers, but it is obviously not the end of the journey for those who have taken the exams.

“It’s quite rewarding, the examination process,” said Mr Williams, who also lectures for the Open University. “When I was a teacher it gave me a real insight into what they wanted.

“You test people’s knowledge, test their reasoning as well; they aren’t just regurgitating stuff. When you’re marking A levels you are making sure these pupils have a certain level of knowledge and are ready to move on.”

See full story in the Leader

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