Students getting their Leaving Cert results might not think too much about what happened to their exam scripts after they left the exam hall. Their work was done, but a flurry of activity was to come for those involved in the marking process.
The last day of exams this year was June 19th, seven-and-a-half weeks ago. Between then and now, 2,000 teachers corrected examination papers to issue 375,000 results today to 57,000 students who sat the Leaving Cert. And that’s just exam scripts. There are almost 800,000 individual Leaving Cert components to be marked, including oral and practical tests, along with project coursework. An extra 1,000 teachers mark those parts. It’s a big operation.
The State Examination Commission (SEC) figures do not include the exact number of exam scripts that were corrected; some of the 375,000 results are for subjects that have two exam papers, such as English, maths and Irish.
Assuming the 375,000 results are the product of a greater number of exam scripts, each teacher corrects an average of more than 188 papers, well in excess, for example, of the 70 to 150 papers French teachers mark over a 10-day to two-week period for the Baccalaureate exams in that country (see story, below).
There are other Leaving Cert components to be marked as well, including oral and practical tests, along with project coursework.
Students took the Leaving Cert this year in 2,500 examination centres across the country. The superintendent from each centre filed a daily report with information such as the level of attendance for each subject. Those reports are processed by the SEC, which is responsible for all second level state exams. “The timeframe is extremely tight,” says an SEC spokeswoman.
Before teachers can start correcting, the marking system for each exam has to be formulated and finalised. The chief examiner for each exam takes into account any comments and correspondence from students, parents, teachers and other interested parties in putting together the draft marking scheme.
This year, the difficulty of the ordinary level maths paper elicited a lot of commentary, according to the SEC.
The chief examiner and an advisory team test the marking scheme at a two-day session, applying it to a random sampling of scripts to ensure the exam paper is effective and the marking system maintains standards.
Teachers who mark the exams, referred to as “examiners”, are then trained at a two-day marking conference.
They go over a detailed instruction manual, which sets out the importance of confidentiality and lists the appropriate locations for marking scripts. Examiners are instructed not to consult with anyone outside the process and not to comment publicly about the examinations themselves or the marking process.
At the start of July, a teacher was reportedly spotted correcting a Leaving Cert exam at a train station and on the Dart in Dublin. The SEC says it is investigating the possible breach of protocol.
"All examiners are required to uphold the fundamental principles governing the marking process, which include the safeguarding of candidate confidentiality," the SEC spokeswoman told The Irish Times. "The SEC treats any reports of breaches of confidentiality with the utmost seriousness."
Who are the examiners?
Some 2,000 examiners, chosen from a pool of serving, retired and unemployed teachers, corrected exam scripts this year. The SEC selects them, on a year-by-year basis, based on their academic qualifications, teaching experience and exam experience. The main criterion for examiners, according to the SEC, is their ability to mark exams accurately and efficiently.
Examiners are paid per script they correct, from €5 for Junior Cert foundation-level scripts to €32 for higher level Leaving Cert scripts, and all amounts in-between, depending on the exam’s level of complexity and the work required. Prior experience marking scripts plays no role in the payments, but does affect how many scripts a teacher will handle. Experienced examiners mark around 300 papers, while a new examiner might only mark 150.
Regardless of the number of scripts, all examiners have 26 days to mark them, starting from the day they receive and take home the papers at the subject’s pre-conference. Conference dates vary, but scripts start coming back to the SEC, via courier, in mid-July. Exam scripts and marking sheets are sent separately. In the event one gets lost, there is still a record of the student’s mark. According to the SEC, that‘s rarely an issue.
While teachers aren’t sworn to secrecy about their marking role, the SEC gives them specific guidelines about confidentiality. “In this regard, the SEC expects its examiners will exercise discretion about their work,” says the spokeswoman.
“The focus of the SEC is ensuring every candidate gets the result to which they are entitled for the work they presented in the examinations. The fundamental principles which underpin the marking process are security and confidentiality, quality assurance and control and data integrity.”
Each subject has a chief examiner, a chief advising examiner and a number of other advising examiners who oversee the teachers and are available to answer questions. The teachers work under these examiners. The SEC assigns scripts to each examiner. To keep the exams totally anonymous, they are drawn from a number of schools, and the only identifiers are the examination centre number and the student’s exam number.
Random sampling of examiners’ work ensures quality marking and determines if the marking scheme needs to be adjusted. The chief examiner checks around 5 per cent of each teacher’s scripts.
If the outcomes from the random sampling show the marking scheme is too hard or too easy, the scheme will be tweaked to take that into account. The examiners process marking sheets and return them, along with the marked scripts, to the SEC, where staff double key results into a database to minimise the risk of error. They then print and issue the results.
The marking schemes for each subject are published shortly after results day. They are issued to schools and published on the SEC website.
Appealing the results
The SEC emphasises today’s results are provisional and subject to further checks and changes, usually through appeals.
“The SEC, and examinations bodies internationally, accept that, in any large-scale examinations system, errors may occur. The SEC’s objective is to ensure the process of marking papers is as free from error as possible and that, in addition, there is a transparent, easily accessible and effective appeals process available to all students who feel aggrieved at the result achieved,” says the spokeswoman.
Students can view scripts at their schools on August 28th and 29th to decide whether to appeal any results; the deadline for filing appeals is September 2nd. In the event of an appeal, a different examiner will mark the script using the original marking scheme.
Students can view these markings as well, and if they still think the mark is unfair, they can appeal to the Independent Appeals Scrutineers, who make sure proper appeals procedures were carried out. All decisions of the SEC, including appeals, are open to review by the Office of the Ombudsman, or, with candidates under 18, by the Ombudsman for Children.
Could it be faster?
The elaborate process above takes a long time; could the results be turned round faster? In response to a question about whether it’s possible to speed up the process, the SEC spokeswoman says: “The State certificate examinations currently operate within the tightest of timeframes and to maximum capacity.”
The SEC handles the Junior Cert as well, results of which come out in four weeks. The SEC says the Leaving Cert takes priority, to provide the “earliest possible” results to “facilitate offers of college places” through the CAO.
Last year, a total of 115,000 students took the Leaving Cert, the Junior Cert and Leaving Cert applied exams; these resulted in 980,000 individual subject grades.
“The current examinations timetable and results processing schedule maximises the time available to collect and process the written examination scripts and other component results, and to then resolve the problems which arise with regard to individual results. While the examinations operate to extremely tight timeframes, the SEC places huge emphasis on operational efficiency, security and quality at every stage,” she says.
Le Bac in two weeks How do they do it faster in France?
French students have been taking the Baccalaureate exams, originally Napoleon’s brainchild, for more than 200 years, and their marking system is incredibly efficient.
“Le Bac” is a set of high-stakes exams, taken for the most part in a student’s final year of secondary school, but they’re not quite as high-stakes as the Leaving Cert. While passing the exams is a prerequisite for university, students receive third-level offers before actually sitting them. University places do not hinge on achieving a certain mark in Le Bac.
“This is where the system is very different to the Irish system,” says Anne-Sophie Gouix, principal at Lycée Français d’Irlande, a French school in Dublin where students sit Le Bac.
“It means one exam will not jeopardise two years of study. I tend to think it’s more fair.”
If students fail the first time, there are repeat exams later in the summer. Students who fail those must repeat their final year of school.
According to the French website education.gouv.fr, 684,734 students took the exams this year, sitting around four million papers, which are corrected by 170,000 teachers. Each teacher is given between 70 and 150 papers to correct and 10 to 15 days to do it.
When students finish their exams, the scripts are in teachers’ hands within a day or two. The test is anonymous, so a student’s own teacher would not correct his or her exam.
With school out for summer, teachers can devote their time to correcting papers. They receive a government-mandated €5 per copy they correct and €9.60 per hour for oral exams.
This year students took Le Bac from June 17th to 24th. They got their results less than two weeks later, on July 7th. French university terms typically start in early September.
Some 37 students at Lycée Francais d’Irlande sat the exams this year, on a slightly different schedule to students in France, but still received their exam results within two weeks.
The procedure, according to Gouix, is that the school scans the exam papers and sends them to examiners in the Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. Teachers at the Irish school mark exams from students in those countries. The teachers have between 45 and 70 papers to mark in two weeks.
“I used to be a teacher, and it’s totally doable,” says Gouix, adding that grading exam papers is “basically part of the package” of being a teacher. Every teacher doesn’t have to do it every year, but it’s likely they will have to most years.
Inspectors are available to answer questions online.
“This means that every teacher, in front of his screen, is able to ask questions. ‘How did you mark this section?’ So they are not alone,” she said.
Teachers enter marks into an online database. Students view their results online using their exam identification number.
Additional research by Julie Graindorge