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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2008

Marking Schemes Are an Abomination

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto
<em>[Photo: Alonso Nichols / TUFTS University]</em>
[Photo: Alonso Nichols / TUFTS University]
Write nothing but “Fuck off” on your English GCSE1 paper, according to recent press reports, and you will get 5 marks, provided you spell it correctly. Add an exclamation and the tally of marks rises to 7.5.

It is hard to know what is most disturbing about this. Some believ­ers in the improving effects of edu­cation, the propriety of exams and the inherent goodness of young people are likely to find the whole scenario dispiriting. Is it really ne­cessary to anticipate such a rude and pointless response from exa­minees? Is anyone who actually sits an exam likely to have no more than an expletive to offer? Is this a case of low expectations inviting their own fulfilment?

Some traditionalists will be more exercised at the intrusion of postmodernism into candidates’ an­swers and examiners’ marks. Since il n’y a pas d’hors-texte and all reading is misinterpretation, to say “F off” is as valid a response as any other, and examiners who acknowledge it as worthy of a few marks — or others, better instructed in the Zeit­geist, who might give it a top grade for forcefulness of expression and independence of mind — are simply helping to dethrone the canon.

Other pedants will be more an­xious at renewed evidence of exa­miners’ illiteracy. Why should an exclamation mark get extra credit? “F off” is a command, not an exclamation.

For me, the really disturbing feature of the news item is the evidence it yields of the increasing influence of one of the great evils of our time, the mark scheme. The mark scheme for GCSE English calls for clear expression, with extra credit for accurate spel­l­ing. So “Fuck off!” scores. You get no marks for loving the great traditions of learning or for un­der­standing that English is a humane discipline that enhances life.

Mark schemes are an abomination for three main reasons. First, they cannot acknowledge what is really worthwhile in a candidate’s work, which is the unexpected — the distinctive insight, the twist of perception that no committee of examiners could anticipate. A truly original mind gets penalised for seeing problems in the question the examiners failed to see, or for identifying approaches no one has thought of before, or simply for having a quirky take. A really complicated, really boring maths or physics question about relative weights and capacities might invite the answer, “It depends on the size of the planet you’re on,” but a candidate sincerely offering such an answer would get zero for fa­cetiousness. Einstein never did very well at school, anyway. Had his progress depended on conformity with mark schemes, his career would never have started.

Secondly, mark schemes are an admission of the failure of the sys­tem. They exist only because the government, the public, prospective employers and the examining boards do not trust examiners to have common sense or to know enough about their subjects to mark students’ work without de­tailed instructions from institutional busybodies. We should have exa­miners with independent, unmuzzled judgment. If we cannot get them, we should try to attract them by paying more, or by creating a more conducive culture or by re­cruiting them from better educated countries than our own. If all that fails, we should scrap exams altogether and devise some better way of equipping deserving students with reputable qualifications. The low expectations that make us inflict mark schemes on examiners are another example of self-fulfilling pessimism. Independent-minded people will not take on the examiners’ roles if we continue to boss them around as if they were idiots.

Finally, mark schemes destroy teachers’ initiative. They are part of the unbearable prescriptiveness of the contemporary educational establishment, which emanates from a climate of fear and mistrust of teachers. Some fear them as irresponsible radicals. Some mistrust them as the dross of the educational system, who, if they were more enterprising, more in­telligent or more ambitious, would do a better-paid, better-respected job. All the apparatus of evaluation crushes teachers’ independence, dethrones them from control of their classrooms, belittles them in their students’ eyes, and cuts down on the time they have to do their real job, which is to give their pu­pils wonderful intellectual ex­periences. When I read an exam script, I don’t want to see compliance with bureaucratically generated targets and objectives. I want to see evidence of stimulation, ex­citement, love of the subject and independence of thought, and other qualities I have not even thought of. You cannot quantify these gifts. They emerge between the lines and beyond the reach of the mark scheme.

There are other, routine chara­c­teristics of good work that can be assessed objectively: knowledge of materials prescribed for the exam, logic, accuracy in the use of language. But let no one say how much of each of these a student must display: the mixture will vary and the overall quality of one student’s work against another’s will depend on the power of the resulting blend to impress the well-educated, critically minded, passionately engaged person we want to be the examiner. Mark schemes are educationally damaging, even if they are relatively good of their kind, but good markers are always benign. We should scrap the schemes and say “Fuck off” to them, probably with an implied exclamation mark. Only if we start trusting examiners are we likely to get good ones.

1. General Certificate of Secondary Education in the UK education system.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2008 edition of Times Higher Education. Reprinted with permission.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily CAUT.

Commentary: CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.

Commentaires destinés à la rubrique Tribune libre : L’ACPPU invite les lecteurs à soumettre des articles de 800 à 1 500 mots qui portent sur des questions d’actualité liées directement à l’enseignement postsecondaire. Les articles ne doivent traiter ni de dossiers de griefs particuliers ni de questions d’intérêt strictement local. Ils ne doivent pas comporter des allégations non fondées ni des propos diffamants, calomniateurs ou offensants envers des personnes ou des groupes. Les articles doivent être empreints d’une objectivité totale et aborder des sujets de nature politique plutôt que personnelle. Un commentaire est avant tout l’expression d’une opinion et non pas le « récit d’une vie ». Il convient normalement de le formuler à la première personne. Les articles peuvent être soumis en français ou en anglais, mais ils ne seront pas traduits. L'ACPPU se réserve le droit de choisir les articles qui seront publiés. La rédaction ne communiquera avec les auteurs de commentaires que si elle décide de publier leurs articles. Les commentaires doivent être envoyés à Liza Duhaime.