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Don't tar markers with the same brush

David Henderson talks to a principal assessor who maintains that scare stories simply aren't based in fact

IF there is anything wrong with a candidate's Higher physics grade, it is certainly nothing to do with the standard of markers, Dr Jim Page, the principal assessor, has reiterated amid continuing uncertainty over national standards across all subjects.

Any hiccups are more likely to be due to inaccurate data entered by adminstrators at the Scottish Qualifications Authority or by schools forced to handle far more complicated information than in previous years or by incomplete transfer of data between centres and the SQA, he believes.

Dr Page, principal teacher of physics at Queen Anne High, Dunfermline, has been chief marker for Higher physics for eight years and strongly refutes the allegations of inconsistency that have undermined this year's results.

"I feel really sorry for the markers who are getting tarred with something that really isn't justified," Dr Page said. "As principal assessor I feel sorry for the examining team who get these headlines in the press, "Marking a shambles, send it back to the schools" so that schools can do their own appeals. The idea of returning scripts is just daft."

More than 11,000 candidates sit Higher physics, making it the fourth most popular exam, but standards of marking have been consistent over a number of years, along with pass rates. This year was no exception, Dr Page says.

A marking team of just under 50 has been working together for some years and were as professional as ever, he insists. In physics, there was no last minute rush to recruit extra markers. Extra scripts which were allocated late were taken by markers who had all attended the markers' meeting.

No one "dodged" markers' meetings and the nine-strong examining team took no shortcuts in assessing the quality of markers' work or in the "finalisation" of marks on the scripts, the chief assessor points out.

Sunday newspaper reports suggested that procedures were flawed because the physics qualifications manager had been off sick for some time. But Dr Page said: "At that particular time of the year the manager does not have to be there because teams are experienced. We're on automatic pilot."

Problems or rogue results mostly come back to incorrect data, although it was difficult to say with absolute certainty before the appeals stage. "I had a colleague who phoned me to say he had a boy who was a top A and was sure he had done well but was given a non-mention," Dr Page said.

"What had happened was one of his units tests had been put in as a fail rather than as a pass. He had actually passed the exam but because he did not have the unit, he failed the course. No matter how well they perform in the national course exam, they are going to fail the course if they have not passed all the unit assessments."

He believed banks of pupils not passing was attributable to data handling. In physics, a written and practical test in each of the three units had to be recorded - six in total - on school forms that were sent electronically back and forth to the SQA. Reassessments add to the total. He suggests that computer input could easily be at fault where there were difficulties in connections between the SQA computer and school computers.

In a normal year, around one in 10 candidates appeals, although that is expected to rise in line with other subjects because of the controversy. "You have to look at the school's evidence and if you can't upgrade them on the evidence, you then have to re-examine the script. You may have a candidate who has misses a cut-off by one mark and it can take ages to reassess, especially in answers that are qualitative rather than purely mathematical. They (the examining team) are caring, thorough and it does take a long time and the interests of the pupil are our prime concern. We work in pairs to come to a fair conclusion."

Dr Page is sceptical of teacher estimates if they are based primarily on the previous year's paper taken as a prelim. It is less of a true test and may overestimate abilities, he believes.

Returning scripts for checking or appeals, as some have suggested, would also mean virtually all pupils succeeding. "If the school's appealing, it obviously feels the candidate deserves to be upgraded," Dr Page states.

This year's narrowing of grade bands, in terms of marks, could have caused more gaps between estimates and actual awards. The previous Higher was over four hours and worth 140 marks in contrast to the 90 marks this year over a two-and-a-half hour exam. The B band, while the same breadth in percentage marks, is narrower in actual marks.

"Because the bands are narrower there is a risk of having more movement between estimates and awards, if someone varies a bit from their estimated performance. Also, if there was a five-mark question a pupil couldn't do, it was possible they could recover over 140 marks but it's much more difficult out of 90. Maybe it's not enough time for pupils to show what they can do."

Leader, page 12

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