George Turnbull is "Dr A-level" for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and formerly head of public affairs at the AQA exam board. He explains how A-level and GCSE exams are graded - and what you can do if you think your grades are unfair.
The vast majority of grades are correct, says George Turnbull
Elation will rule supreme in news reports, with crazed youngsters jumping for joy and hugging in the sure knowledge that preferred university or college places are theirs when A-level results are published this Thursday.
But what of the many others who fail to make the grade? Could the exam boards have got it wrong?
Well, yes they could. They are not perfect and have the same frailties as are found in every other area of human endeavour.
And with 50,000 examiners marking 26 million examinations in a six to eight-week period, from exam to grade, there are many opportunities for mistakes to occur - if it were not for the elaborate system of double checking to ensure accuracy throughout the entire process.
How it works
Exam papers are set by senior examiners some 18 months before they are sat, and approved by advisers, mostly teachers and other experts familiar with A-level and GCSE standards.
These standards must be maintained. There are no fixed-percentage pass rates in any subject, hence there are slight variations from year to year.
From the exam room, the papers go straight to assistant examiners for marking - but in pencil initially. These marks are only provisional.
Three days later the examiners will attend a "standardisation meeting" for that paper with senior examiners to finalise how the marking scheme is to be applied to cover every possible answer.
Examiners then have three weeks to complete their allocation. Regular checks are undertaken by senior examiners to ensure consistency and accuracy of marking throughout that period - and afterwards too, when all the marking is again reviewed.
Where examiners are unable to meet these exacting standards, their scripts are re-marked by senior examiners to ensure accuracy, consistency and fairness for all candidates.
Turning marks into grades is a separate task for a committee of senior examiners at "awarding meetings". These meetings can last for two or three days.
Members have first-hand experience of marking and setting this year's papers, as has the "chair of examiners", who also has an overview of the subject and related syllabuses.
Before attending, they receive both this year's papers and those of previous years, along with photocopied scripts on the various boundaries from the archives: to refresh their minds on the standards to be applied.
Each exam paper is unique, so marginal differences of difficulty do occur. If easier, then more marks are needed to gain grades, and fewer if more difficult.
Statistical data are considered too, as percentage pass rates would not normally alter greatly from year to year, unless for good reason.
All decisions are justified to the "accountable officer" at each exam board, usually the chief executive. The boards operate to a mandatory code of practice, are regulated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and do not act independently or in isolation.
A-level exams and results day can be very stressful
Of more than six million subject entries for GCSEs in 2003, only approximately 9,000 grades changed. And one mark out of hundreds could have made that change if a student were at the top or bottom of a grade band.
Not much to question the quality of the marking there - and indeed if the scripts were marked again they might well revert to the original score and grade - but a boon for any student gaining that extra mark and going from a D to a C. Grades can go up or down if they are investigated.
So what do you do if you think they have got your grade wrong? Any request for an investigation must come from your school.
Scripts can be re-marked and clerical checks undertaken, and it is even possible for original marked scripts, or photocopies, to be returned to you for inspection. Students with university places at stake have a fast-track service available to them.
If after investigation there is still thought to be an injustice, then these cases can be taken by the school to appeal, through the boards and independent advisers. Any perceived injustice not resolved can then be taken to the independent Examinations Appeals Board (EAB).
A free AS and A-level guide packed with information about examinations and details about awarding procedures and exam-board contact details can be obtained through the QCA website, and direct questions answered by me. Click on the blue A-level box and you are there.
And the Department for Education and Skills has a free impartial and confidential helpline - 0808 100 8000 - where advice is available on each student's own personal circumstances and the current status of their application for preferred courses, should they fall short of the grades required.
Lines are open from 10 to 29 August and more than 50 experts are there waiting for that call.
It costs nothing but could be worth a lot..