Scotland's education secretary told the BBC this week that she could make a “cast-iron guarantee” that young people will not be disadvantaged this year by the system for awarding grades that has replaced exams.
Shirley-Anne Somerville said she could do that because, as she put it: "This year a teacher's judgement is based on an individual's demonstrated attainment. So if your teacher thinks you deserve an A, you will get an A.”
That statement was called into question by the Greens' education spokesperson, Ross Greer, who said in a tweet: “It is utterly and categorically untrue to say 'If your teacher thinks you deserve an A, you will get an A.' If your teacher thinks you deserve an A but, for reasons of family bereavement, personal illness etc, your assessment evidence says B, they have to give you the B.”
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So where does the truth lie? Let’s unpick what the education secretary had to say: “This year a teacher's judgement is based on an individual's demonstrated attainment. So if your teacher thinks you deserve an A, you will get an A.”
SQA assessment 2021: Will grades be entirely down to teacher judgement?
Grades this year are based on demonstrated attainment, but that does not exactly mean “if your teachers thinks you deserve an A, you will get an A”.
A candidate will only get an A if, in the assessments they have undertaken, they have the evidence that supports that grade.
This is different to 2020, when teachers were able to use a mix of demonstrated and inferred attainment – in other words, last year teachers had some flexibility to take into account the disruption caused by Covid. This year they don’t and in the frequently asked questions section of its website, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) could hardly be clearer on this point.
One question reads: “Can teachers use inferred judgement if no evidence is available?” And the answer states: “No, inferred attainment cannot be used.”
To read the full answer click here.
Then there was this from Ms Somerville: "The assessment process is judged by your teacher and they will submit the grade. No one is coming in to overrule that or second guess it.”
This isn’t the case. Tes Scotland broke the news that Education Scotland inspectors looking at how councils were planning to quality-assure the results this year had found that “most” councils were providing schools with “bespoke data analysis tools”, so that provisional results can be analysed “against three-year or five-year trends from historical data”.
This is so that “unexpected grades” can be identified and challenged. Jim Thewliss, the general secretary of School Leaders Scotland (SLS), told Tes Scotland that this was right and proper – but the point is, despite the Education Scotland report setting this out clearly, the government is continuing to insist this is not happening.
Ms Somerville told the Scottish Parliament last week that “one of the key changes from last year’s unacceptable situation is that grades will be based on teacher judgement, informed by the work of pupils, not on algorithms, statistical models or historical performance of schools”; now she has told the BBC that no one will “second guess” the grade.
The SQA itself is also quality-assuring grades at a national level. Every school will have at least one course quality-assured at one level – so National 5, Higher or Advanced Higher. Teachers in subjects being quality-assured will send SQA examples of marked learner assessment evidence for five learners.
However, the SQA is keen to stress that “the SQA quality-assurance process is to look at a school or college’s application of the national standards, not the marking of individual candidate assessments”.
What about this statement from the education secretary? “Your teacher will decide your grade [and] if you don't agree you have direct right of free appeal.”
Students do have a direct right of appeal this year, but if the appeal is made “against the academic judgement”, the school sends the evidence used to determine the result to the SQA and it is reviewed.
There is no opportunity to have “exceptional circumstances” taken into account this year. That means that, while in a normal year candidates can ask for special consideration to be given if they have suffered illness or bereavement, for instance, this year they cannot.
The SQA is arguing that this is because the kind of evidence that would be submitted to support an exceptional circumstances application is the kind of evidence grades are being based on this year from the very start. It also says that there’s a contingency for students who have suffered severe disruption as a result of the pandemic because a “very small” number of them will be given until September to complete their assessments.
But – and we are about to come full circle here – teachers still do not have the freedom to take into consideration all the challenges young people have faced this year. They have to base grades on the evidence the candidate has managed to generate, so the fear is that exceptional circumstances will not be taken into consideration at any stage, in this most exceptional of years.
Now the Scottish Youth Parliament has joined charities and academics in writing to the SQA to ask that “any exceptional circumstances” be taken into account. They say they have heard “heart-rending accounts...from those who have missed significant periods of teaching or have experienced serious mental health problems, to those who have lost a parent – who are worried circumstances like these will not be accounted for by the appeals system”.
So where does this leave us?
Talk of “teacher judgement” this year is quite simply misleading. We don’t talk about exam judgements – we talk about exam grades or exam results. And given that students are being required to complete assessments – just as they would in a normal year – and grades are being based on these, why are we talking about teacher judgement when that term is potentially misleading?
Ultimately, the English label of “teacher-assessed grades” is more accurate and less confusing.
That failure to be clear about the basis upon which grades are being awarded this year is significant. It has got in the way of the kind of shared understanding of the "alternative certification model" (ACM) that would have given everyone – students, parents and teachers – more confidence.
Now, with only a little time left before the 25 June deadline for submitting evidence to the SQA, it's hard to see how that confidence in the system is going to be generated.