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Estimates come under pressure

On the face of it, teachers are not hitting the mark often enough when it comes to providing estimates of pupils' performance at exams or providing valid evidence to back up appeals. The Scottish Qualifications Authority's review of derived grades, estimates and appeals procedures found that some of the derived grades awards were not justified by school-held evidence, and that almost half of appeals failed as a consequence.

But scratch the surface and the picture is more complicated - in some cases at least. Could it be, as secondary heads and teachers suggest, that they come under pressure from pupils, parents and, at times, local authorities, to put in appeals when the coursework and pupil's performance does not merit an upgrade? Some schools, in the past, used to submit appeals accompanied by a pro forma letter, saying that they were doing so under parental pressure. It would appear that such pressure has not disappeared from the system.

When it comes to estimating a pupil's performance, it may not be that easy to hit the nail on the head. However, where variations appear, there seem to be two schools of thought. The first is deliberately to under-estimate a pupil's prelim performance to give the candidate a fright - the theory being that it will make him or her work harder. The opposite approach is to set a relatively easy prelim and over-estimate the likely exam performance on the basis that over the three or four months which follow, the pupil is bound to improve.

Neither approach does anyone any good. There is little evidence that the first works with the majority of pupils; it is likely to demoralise rather than motivate them. The second provides no valid evidence for an appeal.

Any moves by the SQA to extend its "understanding standards" programme can only benefit teachers and pupils. If there is a move towards giving teachers greater professional and curricular autonomy, it is important that they hone their assessment skills, for formative and summative purposes.

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