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Angela Tilby: Marking requires objectivity  

05 March 2021


SO, THIS year’s school exams will be marked by teachers. Many will feel relief: surely teachers are the best judge of those they teach?

Not for me, they weren’t, but then I daydreamed my way through school. I was once busy working out how to push my desk, millimetre by millimetre, out of the Latin teacher’s line of sight. She noticed, and pointed out my perverse behaviour to the rest of the class without either interrupting her flow or even pausing to look at me. Pure sarcasm; and the shame persists.

But, 12 weeks before a big exam, I worked out a tight timetable for learning the textbook by rote. Wound up by stress, I usually turned in a good performance, preferring to rely on the judgement of strangers rather than risk the understandable resentment of those who knew that I had never listened to a word that they had said.

Since then, for my sins, I have marked many exam scripts and essays. Objectivity is always difficult when you know your students, which is why second marking and external examination is the norm at degree level. Even here, it is not always easy to arrive at a satisfactory assessment.

I well remember being at an examiners’ meeting for the theology department of a prestigious university. Scripts were marked according to a system based on the Greek alphabet, garnished with pluses and double pluses, and minuses and double minuses sometimes confusedly combined; so, for example, you could find yourself with beta plus plus minus, with a question mark as a final garnish. These scribblings were then translated into percentages.

Then, revelation! The name of each candidate was announced in turn. At this point, there was sometimes a wailing and gnashing of teeth, or a sighing of approval, or, once, “Well, as it’s him, I think we can give the benefit of the doubt and upgrade to a credit.” I was mildly shocked by this at the time, but perhaps there is a point at which personal knowledge of a student’s capacity plays a part in making a judgement. My greater fear, though, is that it distorts the result, either to the student’s advantage or disadvantage.

Assessment and judgement is part of life, and it is right that schools should prepare us for this. It is also, of course, part of death: “after death the judgment. . .” — a theme much downplayed these days.

And yet the promise held out to us in scripture is that we are judged by one who is both righteous beyond our capacity to deceive and merciful beyond our knowledge of ourselves. I do not have to put on a performance. I just have to remember, week by week, that God is, indeed, the one to whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.

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