Tag Archives: marking

The tantalisation of standardisation: It’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles all over again… and again… and again…

Back in the early 90s, my older brother managed to get me a second-hand Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). It came with two games which, as I had no money to buy any others, occupied much of my time for months on end. One was the classic arcade game Kung Fu Master and the other was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Whilst Kung Fu Master didn’t take long to, er, master, TMNT was a different beast. It was impossibly difficult. It was so difficult that, along with a handful of other NES games, it contributed to the phrase ‘Nintendo hard’ entering the English language. Some of the levels were almost unplayable (I seriously think the one with the van was solely created just to crush the spirit of children), but what made the whole experience impossible was the fact that this was in an era when there was no ‘save game’ feature on consoles. So every time I lost the game, I had to start again at the beginning. I don’t want to work out the number of hours I threw away making barely perceptible progress on TMNT.

But as the saying goes, ‘When I became a man, I put away childish things’. Whilst anyone who even vaguely knows me would know that this obviously isn’t even slightly true of me, I have definitely moved on from wasting endless hours trying to overcome such frivolously difficult tasks – tasks where I ultimately get nowhere and have to start right back at the beginning again after each attempt. That is until I became an English teacher. Because, since I became an English teacher, I’ve had to take part in standardisation. Regularly.

Standardisation, to the uninitiated, is the act of moderating assessment with colleagues in order to establish a standardised level of accuracy in grading. Seems like a wholly appropriate thing for any English department to do, particularly in the days of coursework and controlled assessment. The problem is that standardisation, whilst well-intentioned and seemingly necessary, is a bit like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the NES.

Because moderating and standardising assessment, certainly in English, doesn’t mean we get standardised grades. Like TMNT, we seem to make progress whilst we are standardising: agreeing on grades and reaching some kind of harmony with our marking. But also like TMNT, the next time we come back to the marking, we have to start all over again: much of what we gained in the standardisation process is lost.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Ofqual report, ‘Marking consistency metrics’, on the quality of marking in general qualifications. Bear in mind that examiners of GCSEs and A Levels undertake more rigorous standardisation than your regular classroom teacher, the findings of the report are pretty depressing. For their report, Ofqual put seeded papers (those that have been pre-marked and assigned definitive marks) out to be remarked by the team of employed examiners. Below is a table showing the probability of a candidate being award the definitive mark. For English Literature, it’s around 50%. History isn’t much better at around the 60% mark.

From the Ofqual report: ‘Boxplot of the probability of a candidate being awarded the definitive grade for a range of units. The mean probability for each subject is denoted by the white triangle.’

The elephant (or turtle) in the room when we standardise is that, when left to our own devices, much of what we gained in standardisation is lost – lost to unconscious bias, lost to the subjective nature of grade descriptors, lost to tiredness, lost to caprice, lost to the fact we might subconsciously compare against the previous piece of work we marked.

And yet we still seem to give up lots of time to standardisation.

The idea that, by practising assessing, and by moderating with colleagues, we are standardising our marking and getting more accurate is a tantalising one. And tantalising is the perfect word for the whole process, as its very etymology brings to mind another good analogy for the largely futile activity. For the word derives from the character in Greek myth, Tantalus, who was punished by his father, Zeus, in a rather spectacular way. Tantalus, a mortal, was invited to dine with the Gods on Mount Olympus. He wanted to test whether the Gods really did know everything, so (obviously) he decided to kill his own son, Pelops, chop him up, cook him and serve him up to see if they knew what they were eating. The Olympians immediately knew what had happened (except Demeter, who was probably looking at phone and so wasn’t paying full attention). Zeus then dished out the most delicious punishment: Tantalus was made to spend eternity in a pool of water which sat beneath trees hanging with bounteous fruits just above his head. But every time he bent to drink the water, it would drain away so he couldn’t get to it, and every time he tried to reach the fruits above his head, they would rise up away from his grasp. Hence: tantalising – ‘tormenting or teasing with the sight or promise of something unobtainable’.

That’s the perfect analogy for standardisation: it torments and teases us with a promise of accuracy, something that is ultimately unobtainable. We should probably be cautious about investing too much time on it. Which is exactly what my mum kept telling me about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Mums are always right.

(Yes, gamers, I know it was called ‘Teenage Mutant *Hero* Turtles in the UK; the original US title is used here to avoid quizzical responses from non-European readers.)

A Christmas Carol | Marking was dead time-consuming: to begin with.

Stave One: Marking’s Ghost

Marking was dead time-consuming: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. But then the new marking craze was embraced by all, despite Ofsted’s protestations that it had nothing to do with them. New marking was born: triple impact, verbal feedback stamps, dialogic, five different coloured-pens… the list went on. Old Marking was as dead as a door-nail.

Scrooge’s name was on all of the department emails and he worked his department to the grindstone.

But it was Christmas and, at length, the hour of shutting up the school arrived. With an ill-will Scrooge dismounted his stool, and tacitly admitted the fact to his expectant department, who instantly packed up their marking and put on their coats.

“You won’t be finishing that marking over the break, I suppose?” Scrooge said to his second in department.

“No, sir. I have family coming to visit,” came the reply.

“A poor excuse. Humbug. Make sure you are in early on the first day back to make up for it then.”

The second in department promised he would be; and Scrooge walked out with a growl.

Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in the usual melancholy Greggs; and having read all his emails, and beguiled the rest of the evening at home with some more data analysis, went to bed.

As he drifted off to sleep, the bedroom door flew open and an apparition appeared before him. “I know that face! The Ghost of Old Marking!” exclaimed Scrooge.

He looked the Phantom through and through. “How now!” said Scrooge, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”

“Much!” said the Ghost of Old Marking, with the economy of words that Scrooge remembered of it.

“Tell me!” urged Scrooge.

“I am here tonight to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping the fate of eternal marking. You will be haunted by Three Spirits – expect the first  tomorrow, when the bell tolls one. Expect the second on the next night at the same hour.  And as for the third… well, you get the gist?”

And with that, the Spectre turned to the window and floated out upon the bleak, dark night.


Stave Two: The First of the Three Spirits


And so on the very next night, at the hour of one, Scrooge received his first visitation. He introduced himself to Scrooge:

“I am the Ghost of Marking Past. Rise, and walk with me.” The Spirit held out his hand and Scrooge grasped hold of it. They passed through the wall and found themselves stood in what appeared to be an empty classroom.

“Good Heavens!” said Scrooge, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. “I was trained in this place! I was an NQT here!”

But Scrooge looked again and he noticed that the classroom wasn’t quite empty. There were no pupils in the room, but sat at the desk was an old gentleman.

“Why, it’s old Fezziwig! He was my NQT mentor!” cried Scrooge with glee.

They watched on as Fezziwig laid down his pen, and looked up at the clock, which pointed to the hour of five. He rubbed his hands; adjusted his capacious waistcoat; laughed all over himself, and called out in a comfortable, oily, rich, fat, jovial voice:

“Yo ho, Ebeneezer! No more marking tonight. Let’s have the shutters up, before a man can say ‘Tristram Hunt’s Character Education’.”

From outside in the corridor, Scrooge heard the shutting of classroom doors and then caught sight of his younger self and his then colleagues gleefully giggling and making social plans for that very night as they walked past Fezziwig’s door – stopping, of course, to wish old Fezziwig “a jolly good evening” and to thank him heartily.

“A small matter,” said the Ghost, “to make these young folks so full of gratitude and make them teach with such brilliance.”

“Small!” echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the young apprentices, who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig.

The Spirit said, “Why! Is it not! He has offered a few wise words of encouragement in mentor meetings and spent but a few pounds of your mortal money on a Terry’s Chocolate Orange for each of you. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?”

“It isn’t that,” said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count them up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune. For he has lightened our workload – our accountability tasks, and more to the point, our marking load.” Scrooge looked up at the Ghost in earnest. “My teaching was never better than in those days… I mean, the pupils’ results were better too and… they learned more when I… when I…”

He felt the Spirit’s glance, and stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked the Ghost.

“Nothing in particular,” said Scrooge.

“Something, I think?” the Ghost insisted.

“No,” said Scrooge, “No. I should like to be able to say a word or two to my department just now! That’s all.” Then he added, with a plea: “Spirit! Please remove me from this place?”

There was a sudden flash of light and Scrooge was conscious, for a moment, of being alone once more in his bed. And presently, he sank into a heavy sleep.


Stave Three: The Second of the Three Spirits


The next night, Scrooge sat upright in bed, awaiting his fate. But when the bell struck one, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came.

At last, he began to notice a ghostly light coming from the adjoining room. Curious as to its provenance, he got up softly and shuffled in his slippers to the door.

The moment Scrooge’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.

Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were piles of exam scripts, essays, homeworks, spelling and grammar tests, dioramas, and worksheets. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike a large red pen, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Scrooge, as he came peeping round the door.

“Come in!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Come in, and know me better, man.”

Scrooge entered timidly, and hung his head before this Spirit.

“I am the Ghost of Marking Present,” said the Spirit. “Look upon me.”

“Spirit,” said Scrooge submissively, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”

“Touch my robe.”

Scrooge did as he was told, and held it fast.

The room around them suddenly disappeared and they were flying above the town. Over the rooftops they went, until at once, they descended upon a house and found themselves stood in a dining room. The scene that confronted them was one of tumult: four children were sat at the dining table in various states of disquiet and their mother was harried as she went back and forth from the kitchen, dividing her attention between the children and as much as a dozen other tasks.

“I recognise these people. They are the family of my second in department, Bob Cratchit!”

Scrooge and the Spirit watched on as the children raised enquiry after enquiry:

“I’m hungry. When is dinner?” cried one.

“Where is my blanket?” squealed another.

“Where is daddy?” asked the third.

As they asked these questions, there was a crash of plates from the kitchen. The children continued their inquisition:

“Can you help me with my homework?” asked the first.

“Can you play with me?” bawled the second.

“Where is daddy?” commanded the third.

This time, Mrs. Cratchit came with a response. “Daddy is busy. He has marking to do. Lots of it. He has to mark each piece of work three times. Each time in a different coloured pen. And he has to write in every piece of verbal feedback he has given. And after that, he has planning and data entry to do. I haven’t got time to help with your homework. You’ll just have to have a go at it yourself. And you will have to play with each other. Mummy is very busy.”

“God help us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of the children.

The bell struck twelve.

Scrooge looked about him for the Ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of old Jacob Marley, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.


Stave Four: The Last of the Spirits


The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread.

“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Marking Yet To Come?” said Scrooge.

The Spirit answered not, but pointed downward with its hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Scrooge pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The Spirit inclined its head.

“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Lead on, Spirit.”

The Phantom moved away as it had come towards him. Scrooge followed in the shadow of its dress, and they soon came upon a pile of school inspection reports. In this pile was the report for Scrooge’s school. Here, then, the school’s grading he had now to learn, lay in the pages before him. Was it a worthy grade? Had the comprehensive, stringent, ironclad marking policy he had put in place bore a sweet fruit?

The Spirit stood above the reports, and pointed down to one. He advanced towards it trembling.

“Before I draw nearer to that report to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”

Still the Ghost pointed downward to the report by which it stood.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the page of the report his school’s name, followed by the grading: 4. He was at once aghast and sullen. He skimmed over the summaries and picked out the words:

“Utterly time-consuming marking policy… Students make unsatisfactory progress… Teaching is inadequate… Teachers assess with excessive regularity but do not have time to use it to inform planning… Teaching is rarely lively… Teachers are visibly exhausted…”

“Am I that man who lay this upon the school?” he cried, upon his knees.

The finger pointed from the report to him, and back again.

“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”

The finger still was pointing.

“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

For the first time the hand appeared to shake.

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”

The kind hand trembled.

“I will honour Marking in my heart, and try to keep it sensible. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this report!”

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.


Stave Five: The End of It

Yes! And the bedpost was his own.  The bed was his own, the room was his own.  Best and happiest of all, the time before him was his own, to make amends in!

And so Scrooge sat down, took out his pen, and wrote a new marking policy. A sensible marking policy. 

He became as good a leader, as good a teacher, and as good a man, as the good old school knew, or any other good old school, in the good old world.  His department enjoyed having time to spend with their families and explore other interests outside of teaching – interests which made them better teachers. He was wise enough to know that nothing great ever happened in the classroom unless time was given to teachers; and he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in enjoyment of their job.  His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to create a good marking policy, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

And so, as Tiny Tim was later heard to observe, God Assess Us, Every One… But in a Reasonable Manner, eh?