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Putting our examination processes to the test

01 October 2018 by Susan Hughes

Putting our examination processes to the test

An insight into ICSA’s examination process and how we ensure fairness for all students taking part

Studying for an exam is something that most people, at some point in their life, are required to do. That is particularly the case for working professionals, who are often required to gain some form of qualification in order to carry out their roles.

For company secretaries and governance professionals studying for one of ICSA’s professional qualifications is an essential step towards membership – be that chartered via the qualifying programme or affiliated via one of our short qualifications – as well as developing a reputation and standing in the profession. It takes dedication and hard work.

Dedication and hard work are also the by-words for what goes on behind the scenes, the unseen work that goes into developing the programmes, writing the materials and setting and marking exam papers.

So how does ICSA ensure that its students are getting a fair test of their capabilities?

An iterative process

A great deal of time and effort is put into the creation of assessment materials at ICSA. Fundamental to that work is a team of subject-matter experts which has been assembled to ensure that the correct areas of the syllabus are being tested and that the qualification awarded remains valid and current for those working in secretarial practice, governance and compliance.

“Examiners try to develop creative scenarios while teasing out the important factors of the subject area”

For each module in an ICSA qualification there is an examiner who is tasked with writing a paper, marking scheme and sample answers. The examiner adheres to guidance which sets out the rules regarding setting the paper and the type of questions that need to be asked, and works closely with the syllabus and study text. The examiner also has to take into consideration other factors, such as the clarity of what is being asked, particularly for candidates who may not have English as a first language.

For the examiner, trying to ensure that the paper achieves all of these objectives and still keeps the candidate engaged is not a simple matter. Examiners try to develop creative scenarios while teasing out the important factors of the subject area that need to be tested.

Under review

Once a draft paper has been created, the process of review and scrutiny gets underway. Every draft paper goes to a subject review group, which starts the process of review and discussion surrounding the validity and appropriateness of that paper. The groups are subject-based – so, for example, the finance review group is responsible for reviewing all finance-based papers for all ICSA qualifications – and are tasked with overseeing the development of each paper, its marking scheme and sample answers.

This means that the group can ensure the content of each exam paper is appropriate, in terms both of syllabus coverage and in reflecting current practice, and see that the questions have been written so as to ensure that a candidate’s answers will demonstrate their understanding at the correct level.

“Changes will occur as many times as necessary until the review group is happy the paper is correct”

Being subject-based, the group can also compare the level of difficulty of all the papers in a subject area, across all of ICSA’s qualifications, and check for consistency.

It is essential with every exam that the candidate is given a fair and clear test paper and to that end the groups provide feedback and guidance to the examiners, working with them to ensure that a paper is the best it can be. Discussions and changes will occur as many times as are necessary until the review group is happy that the paper is correct.

The process of producing just one exam paper can take up to six months, so it can be a challenge delivering two exam sessions a year. By November 2019, ICSA will be offering 21 separate exam papers per session, our highest number ever.

Coordinating the work of getting those papers in front of students, marked and checked takes a great deal of organisation, planning and resource. Without the subject specialists who provide valuable expertise and knowledge, this would not be possible.

The process of oversight does not simply end once a paper has been produced. The review groups feed into a further group, which has the task of finally agreeing the quality of the assessments, the marking process and approving exam results. This group is known as the Assessment Review Panel, and it meets after each exam session to ensure all processes have been followed correctly and the correct exam standards have been met.

The panel is made up of a number of experienced individuals from both academia and professional practice. That variety of backgrounds means they are in a position both to monitor assessment standards and to keep abreast of and report on current developments within the profession.

The panel in turn reports to ICSA’s Qualifications Committee, and its experience has and will continue to help ICSA in shaping future developments.

As chair of the Assessment Review Panel, one of the most important parts of my role is to ensure that it meets its responsibilities in quality-assuring ICSA’s qualifications assessment process.

That can only be achieved by working as a cohesive team, sharing knowledge and experience, and supporting each other. My role is to lead this team but also to encourage us to reflect on our own performance and ensure our own practices support that vital quality assurance role.

Getting the right result

Candidates often ask what happens with the marking of the papers, and who is involved. Once an exam has been completed the process of marking gets underway and it includes a number of stages. The first stage is a standardisation exercise, which is undertaken to ensure that all markers are using the marking scheme effectively and that all are marking at the same standard. Once this has been done, all the papers for a particular module are marked.

“Everyone involved is clearly committed to ensuring that all candidates are assessed fairly”

Following that comes an administrative check, which is designed to ensure that all pages in the exam booklet have been marked and that the marks awarded have been added up and entered correctly. Then, they go through a second marking and checking stage.

All ICSA papers have a pass mark of 50%. When a candidate has come close to the pass mark but has failed – that is, they are awarded a ‘Fail A’ grade and a mark between 46-49% – then the paper is checked again.

At the final stage, the marks awarded and the marking process itself are reviewed independently by the Assessment Review Panel, to check that the marking is fair and correct. At this stage, papers awarded a Fail A mark will be reviewed again.

This means that a student given a Fail A grade will have had their paper reviewed three times. The whole process is designed to ensure that all candidates are treated fairly. There are many people involved in ICSA’s exam process, with a broad variety of backgrounds and expertise. Everyone involved – whether they are examiners, markers, reviewers, study text writers, panel members and ICSA assessment staff – is clearly committed to ensuring that all candidates are assessed fairly.

The process is designed, first and foremost, to support students throughout their qualifications and to ensure that the results are fair and reflective of a candidate’s work and commitment to studying.

If you are currently studying for the next exam session, we hope you found this insight useful and wish you the very best with your studies.

ICSA relies on individuals from a variety of professional backgrounds to support the assessment process.

If you would like to become involved with our exams or find out further information then please contact exams@icsa.org.uk 

Susan Hughes is the chair of ICSA’s Assessment Review Panel 

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