Una Mullally: Leaving Cert students deserve qualified examiners

Exam may determine your life so State must maintain trustworthy marking

Exam time: Young people sacrifice a lot to do well in their State exams. They merit good examiners. Photograph:  Peter Thursfield

Exam time: Young people sacrifice a lot to do well in their State exams. They merit good examiners. Photograph: Peter Thursfield

 

The news that the State Examinations Commission is hiring people with no teaching qualifications to correct State exams should rightly anger pupils and their parents. The Leaving Cert exams in particular can often direct the course of one’s life, and young people deserve a robust system.

Long before I had taken any State exams, the Leaving Cert was an integral part of my summer. I had a frontline insight into what it took to correct the State exams and I would come to have anxiety dreams about them years after they were over.

My father, a now retired English teacher, corrected English Leaving Cert papers for what felt like all summer long, at a desk in the converted attic, the floor covered in countless piles of batches of sealed, pink papers, everywhere a jumble of red pens, thick elastic bands and cups of tea. From morning to night, he’d be up in the room. Then he became an advising examiner, and exam papers from other teachers around the country would arrive at the house. He’d be on the phone to different teachers, who seemed to only communicate in numbers. He’d be in Athlone at a marking conference to set the marking scheme, and also at the examiner conference.

At the examiner conference, the advising examiners, having corrected randomly selected samples of exams to show “this is an A, this is a B” and so on, had the examiners correct the same papers to make sure that their understanding of the marking tallied.

A marking scheme is the amount of marks allocated to every question. An experienced examiner gets about 250 papers, and an advising examiner has six or seven examiners reporting to them. Throughout the correction process, the examiners need to send samples of corrected papers to the advising examiner for the advising examiner to assess, and to make sure they are adhering to the marking scheme. After the first 20, for example, an examiner has to send a sample of four scripts, perhaps a borderline A, a borderline B, a borderline C, or a borderline D, to be assessed. The advising examiner might ask for the examiner to send on their highest A, or their highest B, to see if the marking scheme is being adhered to at the high end of results.

Alarm bells

The advising examiner themselves might correct random samples. The marking is also kept to a notional curve, with the understanding that the standard shouldn’t vary too much year to year, as it would be very odd for there to be 80 per cent As and Bs one year, and 30 per cent the next. If on an occasion the advising examiner has issues with an examiner – that their correcting isn’t up to scratch, or if there are alarm bells ringing over sloppiness or inaccuracies – the papers can be taken from that examiner and distributed to others.

The issue for the commission is not how to find new people to fill the roles teachers aren’t filling, but how to get teachers to fill them

Experienced examiners not only understand the marking scheme, but they also have a very good handle on the curriculum itself, an understanding of the standard of answers learned not just through their own teaching, but through years of correcting papers, (what is exceptional, what is average, and so on), and should also be adept at identifying cheating, plagiarism and copying. Correcting State exams is not just about knowing the subject or the topics in the exam paper, it’s about understanding the intricacies of the exam process.

There are several layers to the corrections process. When done correctly, it remains an intense, deadline-driven job that is taken very seriously. Examiners need to know what they’re doing. Even after the exams are corrected, there is another layer, where students are entitled to appeal a result, if there is a discrepancy between what they expected to achieve and what they got. 

The State Examinations Commission stipulates that examiners must be “Registered with the Teaching Council as a teacher of the subject concerned, or holding qualification sufficient for such registration” and “further qualifications (in the subject or in education)”, and then the caveat: “Applications with the necessary qualifications in the subject but not yet qualified as teachers will be considered only if vacancies remain after all suitable and fully qualified applicants have been offered appointment.” The issue for the commission is not how to find new people to fill the roles teachers aren’t filling, but how to get teachers to fill them. 

Pay levels

Payment for correcting State exam papers is between €5 and €32 per exam paper depending on the exam and the grade level, with Leaving Cert higher level papers paying the most. This means that most examiners receive €2,500-€4,000 for correcting Junior Cert exams, or €3,500-€6,000 for Leaving Cert exams. This payment can be reduced by up to 58 per cent due to tax. 

For better or for worse, one’s entire secondary school education culminates in a Leaving Cert that potentially impacts the rest of your life. I think you’d want to be fairly sure that the person responsible for correcting those exams is up to scratch.

People who teach the exam subject, who are surely the best qualified to correct it, should be encouraged and incentivised to do so. This means properly compensating teachers for a job that is hard-going, with long hours, strict deadlines, and pressure. Handing over State exams to people who are less qualified and therefore less able, very obviously brings into question the integrity of the marking being done, and also surely leaves the process open to further appeals. 

Young people sacrifice a lot to do well in their State exams. They work hard and often subject themselves to huge pressure. Parents make sacrifices too, supporting their children’s study however they can. If the State expects so much of pupils, then it needs to keep up its side of the bargain, and maintain a system that young people trust.

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