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Half-term is cancelled, the family are pushed to one side, many many hours in front of a mundane screen…I’m not sure why, but I love it! Marking test papers is not for everyone, but there are a fair few of us that do it. Retired teachers, supply teachers, insomniacs, maternity/paternity leavers, part-time teachers, even full-time teachers (how do you find the time!?).

People often ask me what is involved. Firstly, we are required to make sure our computers are set up correctly in order to access the marking system – it seems old and dated, sluggish and subject to regular crashes. After this, we have a day’s training the first Saturday after the tests are completed. We meet our supervisor and are basically read a really long script…”give credit to this”, “don’t give credit to that”, “look at these examples” (too late the next slide is already up), “don’t ask why – it’s not your place to question the mark scheme – just to apply it”. You are waning by the end of the day and just hope you have soaked up enough to make a good go at the marking and make sense of the rather complex ‘secret’ second mark scheme no one else is allowed to see (more on this later). On the Sunday you have some practice questions and then a ‘standardisation test’ to make sure you are up to scratch. Assuming you get through this, you are free to mark the real responses.

The other questions I always get asked are how much it pays and how long does it take. There is no exact answer to this, but my best guess is 100 hours work for about £1000…so about £10 an hour – way less than secondary school markers – but I never do it for the money – I just get a buzz from watching my percentages increase, trying to spot the ‘validity items’ (more on this at the end) and hopefully, it giving me a better understanding of what it takes to do well in a reading test, so I can pass this on at school.

What about this second ‘secret’ mark scheme then? What is published by the government is very slim to what you get as a marker. What is covered in one page of ‘acceptable points’ in the published mark scheme can be covered by several pages in the MGD (Marker’s Guidance Document). Then for some of the multi-mark questions there are additional TRT (Themed Response Tables) with several more pages of examples. One question on the published mark scheme can equal 15 pages of guidance in the MGD and TRT combined. The content is really helpful and really confusing at the same time. Why is this not shared publicly? Probably because it will open up a lot of controversy on what is allowed and what isn’t. Much of what we must apply seems unfair, or sometimes too lenient. Many a response I have seen where a child clearly has the answer but has missed what seems an innocuous key word (for example a verb showing ‘human interaction’). Likewise, a pupil may write mostly nonsense, but hey – there’s a key word, so they get the mark. We do need detailed guidance to ensure consistency in marking which in theory leads to fairness – however sometimes it seems the constraints are too tight, or the opposite, that there is too much flexibility which ends up leading to unfairness anyway.

I can say I am a real expert on bees now – but the mark scheme does not like children to mention honey – you won’t get credit for that – I do like honey though so thanks to all those children that kept telling me about it.

I do have some tips for children and teachers in completing the tests.

  • Cross out, don’t rub out. The machines that scan the scripts really do pick up the faintest of left over pencil markings making it hard to read the overwriting.
  • Do use a dark writing implement (sharpen it too), sometimes there was some very faint writing and I had to put my laptop right up to my eyes to make it out.
  • Don’t write unnecessarily. The most frequent block to a pupil doing well in this test is not finishing it. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing more delightful for a marker than marking a question that has not been attempted, but the amount of time wasted by children writing things like ‘I know this because…”, “because it says on page 4, in paragraph 3, line 7, after the 3rd word, near the picture of…”, “it might be this, but it might also be that, actually I’m really not sure so I’m just going to copy dozens of lines from the text and hope for the best”, means that they are reducing their chances of finishing the test. And the last few questions (even the 3 markers) are really not that hard to get marks on with just a couple of well-chosen words. Stop teaching your children to write in full sentences for comprehension, you’re really not doing them any favours for the reading test – save it for writing lessons. Some questions also have a limit on how much can be quoted from the text. I see quite a few PEE, APE, PQE notes next to the answers (I had to look up APE and PQE), but I’m not sure this really helps children – it just makes them ramble. P and E is enough – make your point, give the evidence – done.
  • Teachers – please use the transcript arrangements. Some of the standards in writing are really poor – a marker will do their very best to decipher what is written – but there are mechanisms in place to help – use them! If it helps your children just get a couple of extra marks it will help your progress score even if it does not help your attainment. On a slight side note – the reading test gives a very good insight into children’s independent writing – how schools manage to report on average 78%+ in writing I don’t know.

My final advice is APPEAL! When the results come out appeal, appeal, appeal – and you only have a short window to do this in. Ideally, get someone like me who has the insider knowledge on what is allowed and not allowed in the ‘secret’ second mark schemes. If you don’t have someone marking the Type 1 questions (the longer, inference heavy questions) in your school, see if a local school does, and borrow them. The mark scheme is complex, markers get tired, they mark lots of questions – mistakes are made. I made loads. Every 20 questions or so a validity item comes up – a pre marked question by ‘the experts’. If you don’t match their score, you are locked out of the marking and your supervisor gives you a telling off and some pitifully vague feedback to make sure you don’t do it again. The thing is, the supervisors are very limited in what they can tell you about what you did wrong. You are not allowed to see the response again (and you won’t remember which response caught you out), so all you get told really is that you were wrong, not what you did that was wrong which is frustrating. We markers really do want to do the best we can, but the system doesn’t help us.

This is the last year Pearson will be organising the marking. Next year Capita will be taking over. Let’s hope they can improve this. Let’s hope they get all the logistics right (it really is quite magical how it all comes together). Let’s also hope that the marking technology isn’t buggy and doesn’t slow down under demand. And let’s hope that the ‘secret’ mark schemes are available to all – fair is fair!

Don’t forget to appeal.

Secret Teacher

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