The rise in the number of pupils gaining improved results both in Scotland and south of the border has led to concern that exams are becoming too easy. The team from the Scottish Council for Research in Education, however, has concluded that "there are no grounds for believing that there has been any change in the standards of performance required to obtain any given band of award in the Higher grade examinations which formed part of the study".
The researchers studied scripts held by the Scottish Examination Board in English, maths, biology and geography covering 1987-94. Common criteria were used to check what was required in each year to obtain different bands of marks. The SEB retains 100 scripts each year in every subject.
The study, commissioned by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department, led the Government to pay fulsome tribute to evidence of improved attainment. Better pass rates were attributed to pupils working harder and not to easier exam papers, it said.
Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, stated: "This is an important and rigorous piece of research which has established a baseline for future comparisons of standards. I expect to see continuing and increased improvements in pupil achievement once the current development of Higher Still is in place."
Figures for this year's examinations show the number of Higher grade passes at grades A-C in at least three subjects was 18,161, compared with 17,712 in 1995.
Some doubts are, however, expressed about maths, where changes to the syllabus and examination introduced with the revised Higher made comparisons difficult. The syllabus was pruned to allow more in-depth problem-solving, work was set in unfamiliar and "real life" contexts, and an investigative component was introduced. The researchers, aided by subject specialists, none the less came up with 180 criteria common to both examinations.
The report ascribes anomalies in maths to the nature of the examination rather than the performance of pupils. There were, for example, more correct responses to integral calculus in the unrevised Higher, "one probable explanation [being] that most of the difficult instances of criteria were in the revised examinations". In geometry, by contrast, there were significant differences in performance at all bands between the years but with more correct answers than expected in the revised Higher.
The study, which took two years to complete, adopts a similar approach to geography where there appears to have been a decline in ability to use graphic skills. This was attributed to "differences in the difficulty of individual questions".
But geography markers who advised the research team noted that pupils lacked a sense of time and place. The SOEID's summary in the Interchange research series, also published this week, noted that some Higher candidates "have acquired a set of broad generalisations which they apply to any place or area". Asked to write about changes in recent years, "answers referred back as far as the Industrial Revolution".
The researchers comment: "The sample of papers was small but nevertheless teachers should perhaps be aware of these concerns."
The biology findings uncovered "some statistically significant differences in individual skill areas" but the pattern was not consistent enough to give rise to worries about slippage in standards.
Performance in English revealed "a very high degree of consistency". Differences in Higher band A awards "are within the bounds of random fluctuation which could be expected within this sample".
comment, page 17 Maintaining Standards: Performance at Higher grade in Biology, English, Geography and Mathematics. By Marion Devine, John Hall, Jacqueline Mapp and Kerry Musselbrook. SCRE Pounds 10.