Blind man's buff at the SQA

IF you eat carrots, you'll have healthy eyesight. If you invent radar, you'll see in the dark. But if you believe the spin from the Scottish Qualifications Authority, you're volunteering for a blindfold.

A couple or three weeks ago, the most extraordinary story was put out to cover the drop in the Higher English pre-appeal pass rate, from 72.3 per cent to 64.7 per cent.

According to the SQA: "In 2002, markers reported an increase in the number of candidates being presented over-optimistically when presentation at the level below would have been more realistic." So it was the teachers' fault. Two and a half thousand Scottish teachers suddenly didn't know what the standard for Higher English was.

Let's get this straight. For years the picture was stable. Some 60,000 sat Standard grade English annually, of whom 25,000 got Credit. Then 30,000 sat Higher, of whom 21,000 (6768 per cent) got a pass or better. Was that norm-referencing? Was it just a consistent level of literacy? In any case it was stable.

Lo and behold in 2000, the SQA's annus mirabilis, the pass rate for Higher Still English shot up to 75 per cent, while those doggedly retaining the old Higher were left on 68 per cent. Was that due to improved standards, but only in Higher Still schools? Ludicrous. Or more likely the panic result of allowing a huge number of appeals in the wake of the results fiasco, as a precaution against being sued?

Whatever the case, that 75 per cent pass rate was allowed again in 2001. This year, for some undisclosed reason, it was not. Post-appeal, the 2002 pass rate looks set to revert to 6768 per cent.

The claim of over-presentation is garbage. The figure for presentations at Higher is consistent with previous years. In any case almost all those who sit Higher in S5 and S6 have already got Credit under their belts. What on earth would be the point in obtaining the equivalent Intermediate 2?

It was pure kidology to claim that Higher Still would produce seamless, painless certification for all. There are huge gaps between the levels, gaps which only some pupils can bridge in a single year's study. The pass-rate for Intermediate 1 is only 47.1 per cent. This is shocking and dispiriting. We probably need to consider the Swedish model, where teachers decide grades, subject to external moderation.

So after all the travail, the felled forests and the attempted spin of the past six years, we might remember one thing. If you want to improve standards, don't spend your money on exam systems. That stick lies broken. The carrot that works is smaller class sizes.

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