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The goalposts keep moving

Pass marks are not what they seem. Neil Munro reports

IT'S now official. The Higher English pass mark is 45 per cent compared with 48 per cent last year - not the 39 per cent which was being erroneously predicted.

As in every year, the mark goes up and down in response to a host of factors. "It's not an exact science," Anton Colella of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, points out.

But it is exact enough. Indeed, English is one of only 10 exams out of the 500 taken at all levels - Standard grade, Intermediate, Higher and Advanced Higher - which was subject to what the SQA calls "exception reports".

These take a close look where there is a variation of plus or minus 2 per cent in the pass mark compared with the previous year (and English was one of only four of the 10 where there has been a fall).

The exam authorities try to get things right at the very earliest stage - during the setting and screening of papers. The intention is to have questions "that are clear and can be answered by an average well-prepared candidate", the SQA states.

"We try to set the exams so that a reasonably competent candidate would get just over 50 per cent of the marks for a grade C at Higher and 70 per cent to gain a grade A for a highly competent student," Mr Colella says.

"Ideally we would like to get that right first time. But there are many variables which we have to take into account in setting the pass mark in order both to ensure consistency in standards from year to year and to ensure candidates are neither disadvantaged or advantaged."

Significant variations in performance are reported to the principal assessors and that sets off a chain of investigative endeavour which aims to leave no stone unturned. This process of "setting the grade boundaries" (see panel) is intended to adjust pass marks where, for example, a paper was more difficult or easier than intended compared with the previous year.

Another factor taken into account is whether the nature of the candidates sitting an exam has changed, in terms of quality and quantity.

This year, for example, Intermediate 2 candidates were found to have done particularly well in some courses. Investigation confirmed that this was partly because many schools were entering bright pupils with Standard grade Credit passes into Intermediate 2 as their prime S5 course.

"Where a change reflected a genuinely improved performance, we would not adjust the pass mark boundary," Mr Colella comments.

The pass mark can be raised or lowered if there is evidence that students have simply been better taught and are better prepared for the exam, once it has been decided that levels of difficulty or quality of candidates are not significantly different from the previous year. Hence the Higher maths pass mark is up this year, by 2.8 per cent.

By contrast, account has to be taken of changes brought about by new assessment arrangements. This was the reason for the 3 per cent fall in the English pass mark following the dropping of the coursework folio and talk elements from this year's exam.

"We could have fixed it so that the pass mark remained the same as last year," Mr Colella says. "But that would have disadvantaged this year's students because fewer would have passed. So we have to adjust the grade boundaries to be fair to them while not giving them a substantial advantage over previous years' candidates."


Decisions on grade boundaries are taken in a series of "pass mark meetings", of which there were 255 this year over five weeks. "It's the last stage in our quality assurance process where our aim is to be fair to candidates and to maintain standards," Mike Haggerty of the SQA says.

Once the new boundaries are set, marks of all candidates who are slightly below them are reviewed and they may get a better grade if it was found, for example, that they were too severely marked. This is the process of "finalisation".

Then comes the little-known, and perhaps less understood, "derived grade procedure". This automatically corrects the marks of candidates whose marks are lower than their school has predicted. But a school has to have an accuracy rate of around 60 per cent.

"Some pupils will have an off-day or some will have missed the exam," Mr Colella says. "It's a reflection of our trust in the professionalism of teachers to make accurate judgments about their pupils' performance, and to reward that judgment."

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