A different perspective

Shannon Gardiner reflects on what she has learnt about the exam process during her time with CERP

I have sat my fair share of exams, and there were moments when I thought exam boards and their examiners were out to get me. I imagined characters like Miss Trunchbull and Professor Snape cackling while they came up with the most difficult questions and highest grade boundaries. Since working for CERP, I have found that this isn’t the case at all.

Before I started my placement last June, I was familiar with AQA but had never heard of the Centre for Education Research and Practice (CERP). I now know that CERP is a hub of educational expertise; it not only plays an important role within AQA, but also has an impact on the wider education community, both in the UK and worldwide. CERP’s work is subject to seasonal changes – for much of the year, the focus is on individual or collaborative research, but in the summer, when AQA sets the grade boundaries for its exams, the whole team is involved in intense operational activity.

Like many, I had no idea about ‘awarding’ – the process by which grade boundaries are set – or the time and effort that goes into this activity. I hadn’t appreciated that grade boundaries were set after the exams have been sat, and that statistics and examiner judgement are both used in the process. I naïvely thought that grade boundaries didn’t change from year to year or that, if they did, it was down to one person amending a mark in a spreadsheet.

Awarding is a very rigorous process, and for several weeks in the summer, it is non-stop. Awarding meetings are held for each individual subject and they can last from a few hours up to a few days; in summer 2017, over 150 meetings took place. My role was to check through the documentation (thousands of pages in all) that was generated by these meetings, to ensure that it had been completed correctly.

Having spent the last nine months in CERP, I have managed to get my head around the different terminology and have come to appreciate how hard exam boards and their examiners work to deliver fair results for students. I really underestimated how much work goes into exams, from designing the papers all the way through to marking and setting grade boundaries. Even greater demand is placed on exam boards when significant policy changes, such as the new GCSE grading system, need to be implemented.

As someone that has only ever been on the receiving end of exam results, working for an exam board has really opened my eyes. I now appreciate that the main goal of exam boards is to ensure that all students get the grades they deserve, and that staff really care about making this happen. 

Shannon Gardiner

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