Leaked exam papers used to 'determine’ Higher results

Exam papers shared widely on social media are ‘main source of evidence’ for some subjects, finds SQA

Emma Seith

SQA assessment 2021: Leaked exam papers used to ‘determine’ Higher results

Exam papers leaked on social media are being used as the “main source of evidence to determine provisional results” in some Higher subjects, according to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).

In other subjects, the papers – which Tes Scotland exclusively revealed last month had been widely shared on Tik Tok and Discord – form a key part of evidence used by schools and colleges to determine students' results.

The findings are from the national quality-assurance exercise carried out by the SQA to ensure that “results are decided consistently across the country”.


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The exercise found that, for example, in Higher physics: “Most centres [schools and colleges] indicated that they would be using the SQA 2020–21 question paper as their main source of evidence to determine provisional results.”

The Higher biology report says: “Most centres indicated that they would use the SQA 2021 paper as the main evidence to determine candidates’ provisional results. Some centres submitted the SQA 2021 paper as complete evidence.”

SQA assessment 2021: Grades based on leaked exam papers

English has the highest uptake of any subject at Higher and, again, the SQA report says that “it was clear that most centres had either used, or were intending to use, the SQA 2021 NQ [national qualifications] assessment resources”.

The picture is more mixed in Higher maths: “The evidence submitted for the selections was from a variety of sources, including the SQA 2021 paper, commercial question papers and centre-devised papers.”

Similarly, it appears there is less reliance on the SQA assessments for Higher chemistry, where “centre-devised assessment instruments were the most common form of evidence submitted”.

However, the report adds: “Of the centres that used centre-devised assessments, approximately half stated that they intended to use the 2021 SQA question paper resource at a later date.”

Schools and colleges are often praised in the reports for all the work they are undertaking to ensure consistency in grading.

For example, the Higher biology report states: “Most centres should be commended on their detailed effective moderation procedures, which included standardising marking instructions, cross-marking and collaborating with colleagues in other centres and local authorities."

The Higher geography report says: “There is clear evidence that moderation processes adopted by almost all centres is thorough, detailed and effective.”

However, some commentators warned the SQA at least as far back as November that providing schools with exam papers would lead to students sharing information about the questions.

Then, in May, teachers told Tes Scotland that the papers were being shared on Tik Tok and shortly afterwards we reported on a Tik Tok video – highlighted by a school student – that had attracted over 160,000 views and over 4,000 comments, where students discussed the exam questions they had been facing.

The SQA responded by saying that “appropriate penalties” should be applied by schools if cases of “candidate malpractice” were identified, but students still went on to share papers on another less well known social media site, Discord.

At the time Tes Scotland covered the story, more than 2,000 users were sharing information on "exams" in around 70 “channels”, and in some cases entire papers were being shared.

Speaking at the EIS annual general meeting last week, general secretary Larry Flanagan said the teaching union – which sits on the National Qualifications (NQ) 2021 Group, responsible for determining how students will be assessed this year – had insisted it was “for schools and teachers to decide what was appropriate evidence upon which to base professional judgement”.

However, he said that, while this had been agreed by the NQ 2021 group, it was later “undermined by the unilateral SQA subject advice which advocated a different approach”.

The SQA has said that prelims and exam diets are unnecessary this year but, in its advice to schools and colleges, it makes clear that "evidence that is similar to a course assessment will have stronger predictive value than evidence that is considerably different from the course assessment".

Conservative shadow education secretary Oliver Mundell, said that teachers had been put in an “impossible situation” this year and that instead of solving the problems identified when the exams were cancelled last year, the Scottish government had pushed “them down to school level”.

He said: “This highlights yet another serious problem with this year’s flawed grading process. Together the SQA and Scottish government have sought not to solve last year’s issues but to push them down to a school level. It has left teachers and schools in an impossible situation and is about as far from fair and robust as it is possible to be.

“Worse still, these concerns have been voiced for months and largely ignored. It is just not good enough and I remain astonished that the cabinet secretary [for education, Shirley-Anne Somerville] can look young people in the eye and tell them with a straight face that they have not been disadvantaged.”

Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said that the SQA was warned that “conducting exams-in-all-but-name...would lead to a wide range of issues”.

He added: “They were specifically warned that sharing online would happen. Those who didn’t seek these papers out are clearly at a disadvantage, and this is yet another reason why exceptional circumstances must be part of the appeals process, and young people must be informed of their evidence base as soon as possible.”

Tes Scotland asked the education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville – during an exclusive interview to be published later today – if she agreed with a student who told us that the widespread online sharing of exam questions "gives some people, including myself, an unfair advantage".

Ms Somerville – who announced earlier this month that she planned to reform the SQA and Education Scotland – said that, while the SQA had made “suggestions and proposals” about the kind of evidence schools should be gathering this year, they had flexibility, and were not obliged to use the exams provided by the SQA.

She said: “Flexibility was built into the system to ensure that schools could have an ability to take account of [progress of] learners during this year and not necessarily use papers. In a normal year there would be one set of exam papers [but] this isn’t that type of year where there is one set of exam papers and there is flexibility for schools to do something different to that.”

When asked if schools should not have used the leaked SQA 2020-21 exams, Ms Somerville said it was "entirely up to schools".

She added: "What it would be wrong to do, as an education secretary, is to start coming in and telling schools what they should and shouldn't be doing because then we would have diktat from the centre, which is something that I don't think is particularly healthy. So that's something I'm not keen to do, to tell teachers and schools what they should or shouldn't be doing when it comes to assessments that the young people that they know best would be going through."

To read the reports in full follow this link; select the relevant subject; select the level (National 5, Higher, Advanced Higher) and then select “2021 key messages”.

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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