The Examinations Process – how does it work?

written by Roger McCune MBE, Head of Accreditation

As students across Northern Ireland wait to receive their GCE and GCSE results, CCEA's Head of Accreditation, Roger McCune MBE, explains how each year a cast of thousands ensures courses are developed, papers marked and grades awarded.

In a few days’ time almost 30,000 local students will receive their GCE and GCSE results. It is the culmination of many years of study for the students and considerable time and effort put in by schools, colleges and exams bodies.

The direction these young people take will depend largely on these results. Therefore it is essential that the examinations are conducted fairly and the grades obtained reflect accurately their efforts and abilities.

Our qualifications system is common across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are five GCE/GCSE awarding organisations operating under the regulation of Ofqual in England, the Welsh Government in Wales and CCEA (Accreditation) in Northern Ireland.

The total number of awards made each year is staggering: just under 8 million – roughly 5.6 million GCSEs and over 2.1 million GCEs.

GCSE and GCE qualifications need to be to the same standard whether they are taken in London, Cardiff or Belfast. So how does such a complex system operate?

Firstly, it requires the efforts of a lot of people. Last summer local exams body CCEA employed approximately 5,000 markers, examiners, and other support staff. In Northern Ireland alone the statistics are striking: over 500 examination papers produced and around half a million examinations sat and marked annually.

The process begins with the awarding organisations developing GCE and GCSE courses (specifications). Working to criteria set down by the regulators, the process of specification accreditation takes well over a year.

Specifications are re-accredited on a 5/6 year cycle. This ensures that content is refreshed and assessment arrangements continue to be appropriate. The specifications are supplemented by examination papers and associated mark schemes

Examination papers are produced by teams of examiners. Questions are prepared, discussed, modified and brought together into a paper. The papers must cover the subject breadth and senior examiners ensure there is comparability across different papers.

When the drafts are produced a revision process takes place with a separate group of examiners. Finally, scrutineers ‘sit’ the papers to ensure that all questions can be answered; the language is appropriate; and the time allocated is about right for the tasks to be completed.

Examination papers are securely printed and sent to centres in sealed envelopes with detailed instructions re confidentiality and security.

Once the students sit the examinations, the papers are collected for marking. With CCEA the papers are brought to their headquarters in Belfast and distributed to markers. Each examiner is trained in the marking of their particular paper. Senior markers monitor and supervise the examiners to ensure that all marking is to a common standard.

When the marks for the examination papers and from the internal assessment (previously coursework) have been brought together, the process of awarding begins. It is a process during which the standard of the candidates’ work is reviewed and decisions taken on where grade boundaries should be set.

The judgements of experienced examiners come into play with significant reference to statistics. The outcome of the awarding meetings is agreed with marks chosen for grade boundaries both in individual papers and for each qualification as a whole.

The examination’s story is coming to an end.

Marks are ‘turned’ into grades and final checks are undertaken to ensure the results are accurate. And in August the results for three quarters of a million students begin to roll out from the exams bodies across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This year’s GCE results will be issued on Thursday 16 August and GCSE results on Thursday 23 August.

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