Radical rethink on SQA appeals

The Scottish Qualifications Authority used to pride itself on the fact that its evidence-based appeals system was the only one of its kind in the known world. Apart from special circumstances such as illness, all other appeals systems are apparently based solely on a remarking of the exam scripts, whereas Scottish schools can provide additional evidence for consideration, mainly in the form of a prelim.

The only country to allow similar evidence-based appeals recently was Russia, which discontinued them in 2005 due to widespread abuse and corruption.

Since the difficulties of 2000, however, which led to a substantial rise in the number of appeals, the SQA has increasingly been seeking to discourage them and, when they are made, to disallow them on various grounds.

Increasingly, schools' prelims are being rejected or downgraded as evidence, due to "lack of equivalence of demand" with the actual exam. Not only does this mean that the design of the prelim must replicate in every detail the final exam, but it must also cover the whole course - something which is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve when prelims are held between December and February, two to three months before the end of the course.

Where a prelim is split to allow for this, the grade boundaries have to be raised to compensate, leading to potential confusion and resentment among pupils and parents.

Schools and departments are then caught between parental pressure to appeal on the grounds of their child's actual mark in the prelim, and teachers' realisation that those marginal cases which are the most likely to be subject to appeal are the very ones that are most likely to be rejected. If and when the appeal is rejected, the department is then liable to the accusation that its standards were slack andor its evidenceprelim inadequate.

Prelims, like NABs, are wide open to manipulation and abuse. Even a prelim which appears perfectly to replicate the requirements of the actual exam in every respect could quite easily have been "pockled" by, for example, including questions which had already been done in class.

Recently, the SQA did away with the pre-appeals adjustment of grades via the "derived grades" procedure, following allegations that it favoured the more academic, private and "leafy suburb" schools with larger numbers of candidates. Yet, there is also anecdotal evidence that such schools do better in terms of appeals, even without the derived grades procedure; some private schools make their success rate with appeals a selling point.

The time has come for a radical review of SQA appeals procedures which will face up to their inadequacy and unfairness, even if this means doing away with evidence-based appeals (except for special circumstances such as illness) in favour of those based solely on the remarking of scripts.

In fairness to pupils, parents, teachers and the SQA itself, the present situation cannot be allowed to continue.

Duncan Toms is a secondary teacher.

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