Two thirds of GCSE and A-level papers are now marked online.
Research by Ofqual published today discloses a move away from traditional “pen and paper” marking towards a computerised system.
But it warned the system may not have the confidence of schools and parents – and has sometimes added up the marks incorrectly.
The regulator said that 66 per cent of papers are now scanned and sent electronically to examiners, who then input their marks directly into an online system.
Almost half (45 per cent) of scripts are also split into individual questions which are then each marked by different examiners, as opposed to one examiner marking the whole paper.
The report states that marking papers on-screen saves exam boards’ time and money, and could improve accuracy, while splitting exams into individual questions allows examiners to become deeply familiar with the marking scheme for that particular question.
It backed the growth of online marking, but said that critics, including some examiners, have expressed concerns at the digitalisation of exam marking.
In some cases, the computerised systems have not correctly added up the marks entered by examiners while on other occasions some pages of an answer booklet have not been properly scanned.
Ofqual admits that these “new sources” of errors could have a “significant impact on student, parent and school confidence”.
The findings are contained within the Review of Quality Marking Interim Report ordered after concerns by a “significant and growing minority” of teachers who warned the regulator that they do not believe marking has been good enough in recent years.
Confidence was eroded during last summer’s GCSE fiasco, when thousands of pupils are believed to have missed out on good grades after exam boards suddenly shifted grade boundaries between papers taken in January and those say in June.
Two further reports, on the appeals process and recommendations, are due to be published later this year.
Glenys Stacey, chief regulator of Ofqual, said: “This initial research shows there have been significant developments in marking in recent years.
“We believe the increased use of on-screen marking is a positive thing, as it allows for more frequent and flexible monitoring of examiners, and reduces the logistical risks.
“We are aware though, that this does bring with it risks of new administration problems, which must be managed properly.”
The report said that last summer, 1.27 million students took GCSEs in 48 subject areas. A further 334,000 took A-levels – equating to 15 million papers.
The report said that “time pressure on exam boards to process this volume of scripts is great” with some A Level results needing to be marked within seven weeks.
As a result, on-screen marking has grown significantly since its introduction in 2003, with all exam boards now using it for at least some of their papers, the report found.
It also found the marking of one per cent of exam papers was now completely automated – meaning no human involvement in assessing answers, a reflection of the use of multiple choice exam papers.
The use of online marking means firms can “outsource” the work abroad. Pearson Edexcel, one of the largest exam boards, has a marking facility in Melbourne, Australia. The firm says only parts of exams with yes or no questions are sent there.
The research report also looked at the quality of examiners, 51,000 of whom mark exams every year.
It surveyed 10,000 and found that 99 per cent had teaching experience, and more than a third were senior and are, or have been, head of department. Nine in 10 had a degree in the main subject.
Only two per cent had no formal qualifications in their main subject. Ofqual said they usually marked “newer subjects” such as ICT, citizenship or media studies.
It said: “Contrary to some beliefs, we find that examiners are knowledgeable… if this were more widely known, it should promote greater public confidence.”
Earlier this month, head teachers of some of the country’s leading independent schools said they had lost confidence in the marking of exams.
The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, which represents more than 250 public schools, said there was “an unacceptable level of inaccuracy” adding that it had a duty to make parents and students aware that “problems in the marking and grading of public exams” were widespread across subjects and exam boards.