Question: How do you mark a subjective question in an objective manner?
It is a task faced by teachers and moderators of GCSE English papers every year.
GCSEs are divided into exams, which are marked by boards, and "controlled assessments" - similar to what used to be called coursework, but different because work is completed under exam conditions.
Controlled assessments are graded by teachers using a mark scheme prepared by the principal examiner and a panel of subject teachers, who set out "the kind of answers anticipated".
A "degree of subjectivity" is used in the marking of creative pieces - however a moderation process is intended to ensure fairness.
After internal moderation in each school, the results are then sent to exam boards along with samples for moderation. Grades are assigned at the later date by the exam board once further moderation and checks are completed.
It is this assignment of grade boundaries, however, which has sparked a well-publicised row over whether the grade bands were unfairly altered in 2012.
Exam boards stand accused of setting the grade boundaries too generously in January and too harshly in June. It resulted in a slight fall in the number of pupils achieving at least a C-grade, from 65.4% to 63.9% this summer.
Obtaining a C-grade in GCSE English is a crucial benchmark required for pupils wanting to continue their studies at A-level or further education college.
But a C grade or above in GCSE English is also a key element on which national league tables are based, increasing pressure on teachers to ensure their students get the best results possible.
In exam regulator Ofqual's final report on the issue, it was suggested that teachers in England were "significantly" over-marking pupils' GCSE English work this summer in order to boost results.
But some teachers believe the subjective nature of the marking system in English is at the heart of the problem.
Edward Marsh, a teacher at the Glyn School in Surrey, said: "The problem with the mark scheme is that there is a huge degree of personal interpretation involved.
"Markers have to determine what are 'relevant quotes' from an attached passage, but given the direction a student's answer is heading a quote may become relevant.
"Problems are compounded with suggested marking guidelines such as identifying 'significant' evaluation. At what point does evaluation become significant?"
Others in the profession are adamant that teachers should not be to blame.
David Blow, head teacher at Ashcombe School in Surrey and member of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) data group, told the BBC: "Moderation wasn't done tightly enough. Marking is being used as a smokescreen for the real issue.
"It is more difficult to mark a piece of creative writing than a maths question... and in good faith, in marking a piece of English, there will be a spread of teacher opinion.
"But there's nothing new about marking a piece of creative work. There was a failure to moderate properly," he added.
Julia Burns, head teacher of Leicester High School for Girls, agrees it is wrong to blame teachers.
"The external markers grade the exams (as opposed to the controlled assessments graded by teachers) and that's where the issue has arisen," she said.
Exam boards produced "very precise" guidelines setting out what pupils must do for each level in the marking scheme.
"I didn't ever think you could make too much of a hash of it. The exam boards make it clear what is required for each level of the mark scheme," she said.
Example question: A place can appear to be very different if you visit it at different times of year. Choose a place that you know well and describe it at two different times of year for a travel website.
This question was taken from the AQA exam board's June 2011 foundation tier GCSE exam on understanding and producing non-fiction texts.
The exam boards make it clear what is required for each level of the mark schemeJulia Burns, Leicester High School for Girls
According to the accompanying marking scheme, students were required to show two key skills: communication through clarity of thought and effective organisation of ideas.
To attain the highest possible grade (a C-grade on the foundation tier) students had to acquire between eight and 10 marks by writing "clearly" and "with success".
AQA produced eight bullet points to explain to markers what is meant by this. They include:
- Engages the reader with more detailed descriptive ideas
- Writes in a register which is clearly appropriate for the audience
- Employs paragraphs effectively in the whole text
Lower grades are awarded for pupils achieving the required standard with "some", "limited" or "attempted" success.
At higher level, where students can achieve between an A* - D grades (or a U for failing the paper entirely), the question and marking criteria are unsurprisingly more difficult.
Example question: Write a brief article for a website of your choice telling your readers about an interesting or unusual journey or travel experience you have had. Explain why it was memorable.
This question was taken from the AQA exam board's January 2011 higher tier GCSE exam on understanding and producing non-fiction texts.
The marking guidance is similar, however to achieve top marks, students must communicate their ideas in a "convincing" and "compelling" manner.
Additional advice given to markers includes:
- Uses linguistic devices such as the rhetorical question, hyperbole, irony, in an effective and appropriate way
- Shows control of extensive vocabulary with appropriately used discursive markers
- Presents complex ideas in a coherent way
Scheme of assessment
Find past papers and mark schemes, and specimen papers for new courses, on our website at aqa.org.uk/pastpapers
This specification is designed to be taken over two years with all assessments taken at the end of the course.
GCSE exams and certification for this specification are available for the first time in May/June 2017 and then every May/June and November for the life of the specification.
This is a linear qualification. In order to achieve the award, students must complete all exams in November or May/June in a single year. All assessments must be taken in the same series. November entries will only be available to students who were at least 16 on the previous 31 August. See Resits and shelf life in the General administration section for November entry restrictions.In designing and setting the assessments for this specification we have ensured that taken together, these assessments include questions or tasks which will allow students to:
- provide extended responses
- demonstrate their ability to draw together different areas of knowledge, skills and/or understanding from across a full course of study for this qualification.
The final reading question on each paper - Question 4 on Paper 1 and Question 4 on Paper 2 allows students to fulfill this requirement.
All materials are available in English only.
Aims and learning outcomes
Courses based on this specification should encourage students to:
read fluently and write effectively. They should be able to demonstrate a confident control of Standard English and they should be able to write grammatically correct sentences, deploy figurative language and analyse texts.
Courses based on this specification should enable students to:
- read a wide range of texts, fluently and with good understanding
- read critically, and use knowledge gained from wide reading to inform and improve their own writing
- write effectively and coherently using Standard English appropriately
- use grammar correctly, punctuate and spell accurately
- acquire and apply a wide vocabulary, alongside a knowledge and understanding of grammatical terminology, and linguistic conventions for reading, writing and spoken language.
- listen to and understand spoken language, and use spoken Standard English effectively.
The Spoken Language endorsement will be reported on as part of the qualification, but it will not form part of the final mark and grade.
Explorations in creative reading and writingThe aim of this paper is to engage students in a creative text and inspire them to write creatively themselves by:
- in section A, reading a literature fiction text in order to consider how established writers use narrative and descriptive techniques to capture the interest of readers
- in section B, writing their own creative text, inspired by the topic that they have responded to in section A to demonstrate their narrative and descriptive skills in response to a written prompt, scenario or visual image.
The paper will assess in this sequence, AO1, AO2 and AO4 for reading, and AO5 and AO6 for writing. Section A will be allocated 40 marks, and Section B will be allocated 40 marks to give an equal weighting to the reading and writing tasks.
The source for the reading questions will be a literature fiction text. It will be drawn from either the 20th or 21st century. Its genre will be prose fiction. It will include extracts from novels and short stories and focus on openings, endings, narrative perspectives and points of view, narrative or descriptive passages, character, atmospheric descriptions and other appropriate narrative and descriptive approaches.
As a stimulus for students’ own writing, there will be a choice of scenario, written prompt or visual image that is related to the topic of the reading text in section A. The scenario sets out a context for writing with a designated audience, purpose and form that will differ to those specified on Paper 2.
Writers’ viewpoints and perspectivesThe aim of this paper is to develop students’ insights into how writers have particular viewpoints and perspectives on issues or themes that are important to the way we think and live our lives. It will encourage students to demonstrate their skills by:
- in section A, reading two linked sources from different time periods and genres in order to consider how each presents a perspective or viewpoint to influence the reader
- in section B, producing a written text to a specified audience, purpose and form in which they give their own perspective on the theme that has been introduced to them in section A.
The sources for the reading questions will be non-fiction and literary non-fiction texts. They will be drawn from the 19th century, and either the 20th or 21st century depending on the time period assessed in Paper 1 in each particular series. The combination selected will always provide students with an opportunity to consider viewpoints and perspectives over time. Choice of genre will include high quality journalism, articles, reports, essays, travel writing, accounts, sketches, letters, diaries, autobiography and biographical passages or other appropriate non-fiction and literary non-fiction forms.
In section B, there will be a single writing task related to the theme of section A. It will specify audience, purpose and form, and will use a range of opinions, statements and writing scenarios to provoke a response.
Non-exam assessmentThe aim of the assessment is to allow students to demonstrate their speaking and listening skills by:
- giving a presentation in a formal context
- responding appropriately to questions and to feedback, asking questions themselves to elicit clarification
- using spoken Standard English.
Students must undertake a prepared spoken presentation on a specific topic. The topic is at the discretion. As a guide, the duration should be no more than ten minutes. The key requirements are:
- presentations must be formal but may take a wide variety of forms, including talks, debates, speeches and dialogues
- students must identify the subject for their presentations in advance and agree it with their teacher
- presentations must be planned and organised. Students should be advised that that lack of preparation is likely to prevent access to the criteria for the higher grades
- students may use pre-prepared notes, powerpoint etc. to assist them during their presentations but this is not a requirement
- as part of, or following, the presentation students must listen to and respond appropriately to questions and feedback
- where the audience is the teacher only, the presentation and dialogue must be designed in such a way that it could have a potentially wider audience than just one person (eg it replicates a television interview).
Assessment objectives (AOs) are set by Ofqual and are the same across all GCSEEnglish Language specifications and all exam boards.
The exams and Spoken Language endorsement will measure how students have achieved the following assessment objectives.
- identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas
- select and synthesise evidence from different texts
- AO2: Explain, comment on and analyse how writers use language and structure to achieve effects and influence readers, using relevant subject terminology to support their views
- AO3: Compare writers’ ideas and perspectives, as well as how these are conveyed, across two or more texts
- AO4: Evaluate texts critically and support this with appropriate textual references
- AO5: Communicate clearly, effectively and imaginatively, selecting and adapting tone, style and register for different forms, purposes and audiences. Organise information and ideas, using structural and grammatical features to support coherence and cohesion of texts
- AO6: Candidates must use a range of vocabulary and sentence structures for clarity, purpose and effect, with accurate spelling and punctuation. (This requirement must constitute 20% of the marks for each specification as a whole.)
- AO7: Demonstrate presentation skills in a formal setting
- AO8: Listen and respond appropriately to spoken language, including to questions and feedback on presentations
- AO9: Use spoken Standard English effectively in speeches and presentations.
Weighting of assessment objectives for GCSE English Language
|Assessment objectives (AOs)||Component weightings (approx %)||Overall weighting (approx %)|
|Paper 1||Paper 2||Spoken Language NEA|
|Overall weighting of components||50||50||0||100|
The marks awarded on the papers will be scaled to meet the weighting of the components. Students’ final marks will be calculated by adding together the scaled marks for each component. Grade boundaries will be set using this total scaled mark. The scaling and total scaled marks are shown in the table below.
|Component||Maximum raw mark||Scaling factor||Maximum scaled mark|
|Paper 1: Explorations in Creative Reading and Writing||80||x1||80|
|Paper 2: Writers' Viewpoints and Perspectives||80||x1||80|
|Total scaled mark:||160|