Spotlight on mark forms
For candidates taking one of our practical graded music exams, the mark form is an essential component of the exam experience. Here, John Holmes, our Chief Examiner, explains our approach to writing and checking this important document. It’s tempting to think that the main value of the mark form is in the marks, and we know that this is, understandably, the first thing that candidates, teachers and others look for! However, the real value of an ABRSM mark form is in the feedback and insight contained in the examiner’s comments, written at the time, in response to the candidate’s live performance on the day, in the exam room. The mark form provides a connection between the candidate, the ABRSM marking criteria and the examiner, with the comments showing how the examiner has used the criteria as the basis of their assessment.
Describing and explaining
In our marking criteria we set out the essential ingredients of music making which we assess through our exams – pitch, time, tone, shape and performance. By referring to the candidate’s control of these ‘ingredients’, the examiner highlights the main strengths and weaknesses which came across during the exam. In this way, the mark form provides candidates with a description of their exam performance. It also explains how the combination of strengths and weaknesses heard on the day leads to the marks they have been awarded. In turn, teachers and candidates can use this feedback as a helpful springboard for progression – it highlights potential areas for future focus and development.
‘...the real value of an ABRSM mark form is in the feedback and insight contained in the examiner’s comments...’
A special memento
Along with its relationship to the marking criteria, the mark form does also have a more personal aspect. It is written by hand, during the exam by an examiner who wants the candidate to do their very best. In this way it provides a special link between the candidate and the musical expert who listened to their exam performance. For many candidates this hand-written mark form goes on to become a special memento of their musical progress and achievement.
Marking from the pass mark
ABRSM examiners mark up or down from the pass mark. This is unlike so-called ‘penalty marking’ – where a candidate starts with full credit, but then loses marks each time they make particular mistakes. It is also unlike ‘from zero’ marking, where a candidate begins their exam with no credit and has to build marks up from a ‘blank page’.
Strengths and weaknesses
In our practical exams, the examiner is simultaneously evaluating a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses as they play or sing. There is no fixed ‘tariff’ of plus or minus points. Instead, these strengths and weaknesses are weighed in the balance in relation to one another. The pass mark is used as a ‘neutral’ starting point from which examiners arrive at a rounded assessment of a candidate’s overall musical performance. All five musical elements described in our marking criteria – pitch, time, tone, shape and performance – together contribute to the mark for a piece or song. So, potentially, any of them can become a significant influence, upwards or downwards, during a candidate’s playing or singing. This is why our examiners mark from the pass mark throughout the exam, using the criteria relevant to each section.
A reliable and rounded assessment
Because our marking criteria refer to five fundamental areas of music making, we train our examiners to base their assessment on these, and to reflect this through their comments on the mark form. Using our extensive library of recorded examples, with indicative marks and ideal comments, we are able to give trainee examiners plenty of practice in this. We want our examiners to provide candidates with a reliable and rounded assessment of their exam performance, balancing strengths and weaknesses and showing their combined effect on the musical outcome. To help examiners achieve this, we train them to refer to at least three areas of the criteria in their comments for each piece or song, focusing on those which have the strongest influence on the mark.
Matching comments to marks
We also emphasise the importance of matching comments to marks, so that the number in the marks column is explained and supported by the examiner’s written comments. For teachers and candidates, we want the mark form to provide an effective description of what happened in the exam. Ideally, when you read a mark form comment, you should almost be able to hear the original playing or singing in your head!
As well as training before becoming an examiner, we carry out ongoing reviews of our examiners’ marking throughout their time with ABRSM. All our examiners have their mark forms thoroughly reviewed and appraised by an experienced ‘reader’ at two-yearly intervals, and the feedback examiners receive from this process guides and supports them in their continuing professional development.
Checking and quality assurance
As the mark form is so important to teachers and candidates, we pay particular attention to ensuring that all our mark forms are of consistent high quality. Training examiners in writing effective, supportive comments is one part of this, but we also check mark forms once they are returned to our offices. At the same time, we record all the marks awarded, which gives us a broad picture of each examiner’s marking, and highlights any trends. This also provides an overview of ABRSM marking more generally, helping us to maintain standards of marking accuracy and consistency across different grades and instruments, and over time.
‘...when you read a mark form comment, you should almost be able to hear the original playing or singing in your head!’
Finally, the checking process allows us to track the pieces and songs candidates are choosing to perform in their exams. We can then use this information when developing new syllabuses – it helps us to select pieces and songs that candidates will enjoy learning and performing.
Creating a positive experience
Insisting on these checks and reviews means that it can take up to two to three weeks before we can issue mark forms. We do understand that candidates are anxious to receive their results as quickly as possible, but we also believe this checking process is vital. It helps us to ensure that candidates receive mark forms of the highest quality, and which make a positive contribution to their overall exam experience.
So, the mark form provides candidates with tangible evidence and recognition of their musical achievement, written at the time of the exam by a thoroughly trained musical expert. Not only is it a source of evaluative feedback about a candidate’s playing or singing during the exam, but it also provides them with potentially valuable ‘feed-forward’ for their future musical learning and progression.
This article was originally featured in the March 2015 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.
To read our marking criteria for graded music exams (instruments and singing), visit www.abrsm.org/markingcriteria.