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ETS apologises for online marking blunders – again

Sorry seems to be the hardest word

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ETS Europe, the school exam contractor, has been slammed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) following revelations of marking delays brought on in part by technical cock-ups at the firm.

QCA boss Ken Boston, speaking on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme this morning, said he was “bitterly disappointed” after boxes containing 384 11-year-old pupils’ unmarked English SATS tests were discovered in a school in Lancashire.

On Monday, Boston had attempted to draw a line under the fiasco when he told MPs that marking was 100 per cent complete.

"We've all had a very bad experience with this and I apologise to teachers and to ministers and others for the performance of the contractor [ETS],” he said today.

"This is a very poor situation and we are now in a position where we have to recover it and rebuild it for next year."

Results were supposed to be dished out to pupils on 8 July but an admin fiasco at ETS forced the firm to delay publication, much to the chagrin of schools and parents across England.

ETS Europe, which is an American company, was signed up by the National Assessment Agency (NAA) this year to oversee national curriculum test results for 1.2 million 11 to 14-year olds taking Sats in England.

Edexcel previously held the school exam contract, but under European Union rules the UK government had to undergo a lengthy procurement process to secure a new contractor.

According to the Beeb, markers – largely made up of practising or retired teachers – had been expressing concerns about the system put in place by ETS for several months.

Many complained about communication problems in the recruitment and training and assessment processes, while others grumbled that ETS was not responding to their telephone or email helplines.

Boston told Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls in March: “The marking pilot study showed that some markers were not entirely comfortable with the training materials delivered online and so, after careful consideration, the NAA decided not to proceed with this innovation for the 2008 tests."

Despite those findings, the QCA decided to adopt “online mark capture” technology provided by ETS.

F for FAIL

Markers were required to duplicate every mark on a pupil’s test paper against that pupil’s name and the relevant question online through an ETS website. This move proved cumbersome for markers who complained that the entire process was incredibly time-consuming.

Load-testing of the systems had been introduced by ETS in an attempt to speed things up and automate the totalling of marks and allocation of test levels. But that measure failed when the system was scaled up. According to Boston it buckled under the strain with marking going faster than the data was able to be processed.

The Register asked ETS to comment on the latest embarrassing cockup with schoolkids’ exam papers.

An ETS spokesman told us: “We appreciate that parents are angry and they’re disappointed and so are we, but there’s just nothing new to add to the debate.”

We asked ETS if it accepted, in light of the exams fiasco, that requiring markers to effectively duplicate their work online had been a mistake.

“We’ve done dozens and dozens and dozens of interviews that discussed what happened and what technical problems arose… But it’s not news any more," said the spokesman. "There are only so many times we can apologise for the same thing over and over again.”

This isn't the first time ETS has been hit by online delays. In February 2006 the company admitted it had to push back test changes to US Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) because of logistical issues with administering the exam.

Changes were supposed to be put in effect in October that year, but ETS delayed releasing the tweaks to the GRE until autumn 2007 to allow it "to complete the expansion of our internet-based testing operations worldwide." ®

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