The exams are finished and GCSE and A-level students are heading off for summer. But there are 12 weeks – and a lot of work – from “pens down” to results day

Did you hear that noise? It’s the sound of thousands of students collectively breathing a sigh of relief. If April is the cruellest month, then July is the most anticipated. The end of GCSE and A-level exams marks a rite of passage, a time for reflection, celebration – and, for some, panic. After candidates have put down their pens, examiners – usually teachers by day – remain holed up in studies, marking.

The marking period lasts around 12 weeks. And while it offers an excellent opportunity for teachers to gain further experience and, let’s be frank, a moderate additional income, it is a rigorous process.

Grade boundaries are not changed following pressure on Twitter

Examiners must attend standardisation meetings before they begin, so that everyone understands the mark schemes. Marking is then continuously monitored, to ensure that it remains consistent and accurate. Papers are marked in a variety of ways, digitally and on hard copies, depending on the subject. Any coursework that is impossible to post – such as art projects – can be moderated by a visiting examiner.

You’ll be familiar with the exam lexicon, but let’s repeat it for clarity. Qualifications are often secured by taking an examination; sometimes this requires sitting a written test. Once a paper has been sat, the exam booklet is known as a “script”. Then, when all the scripts have been marked, the grade boundaries are set, a process known as “awarding”. The procedures for this, once shrouded in mystery, are now well documented; it was fascinating to observe students’ recent calls for changes to the boundary lines after some of this year’s exams.

Clearly, grade boundaries are not changed following pressure from candidates on Twitter. So how are they set?

Exam boards aim to create papers to the same level of difficulty, but in practice there is some variation from year to year. It would be unfair for students to get a lower grade just because they sat a more difficult paper and so grade boundaries are set for each individual exam. This is an enormous undertaking and ensures that standards are maintained from one year to the next. It’s applied to any controlled assessment, coursework and written exams.

Senior examiners meet and compare the current scripts to the previous year. This is a logistical challenge, given the numbers involved. (AQA examiners, for example, mark more than seven million scripts each year.) However, evidence shows that examiners – no matter how talented – find it hard to allow for differences in assessment difficulty when comparing scripts from different years.

If we rely solely on examiners’ judgments, there is a real risk of the standard varying year to year because the quality of work required for a particular grade is not sufficiently consistent. So, statisticians and awarding experts work together with the examiners to set boundaries, which are then approved by Ofqual. The minimum marks for each grade are confirmed and applied to the marks each student achieved to produce their final grade.

We’re used to hearing cries of “it was harder in my day” every summer. In reality, thanks to the work of examiners and academics, results are comparable across the years. A team of statisticians, data modelling specialists, psychologists, scientists and educationists based at the Centre for Education Research and Practice (CERP) work together to advise AQA on grade boundary setting, among other things. This means that when students receive their results in August they can be certain that they are fair and robust – and that if they have achieved high grades then these are the genuine article.

CERP is AQA’s research arm. Read more about grade standards and marking reliability at cerp.aqa.org.uk. @CERP_UK

AQA has produced a guide to how exams work, which you can read at www.aqa.org.uk/about-us/how-exams-work