SQA: Exam changes 'had no significant impact’

Higher pass rate has dropped two percentage points but SQA insists that exam and coursework changes were not responsible

Emma Seith

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The Higher pass rate has dropped from 76.8 per cent to 74.8 per cent this year, new figures published today show.

However, the new chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), Fiona Robertson, has insisted that the changes in the pass rate are not related to the changes that were introduced last year to the way Higher subjects were assessed.

In 2018-19 the unit assessments, which had been blamed for creating a "testing treadmill" in schools, were removed from the Higher qualification.

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Background: Higher attainment falls

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To compensate, changes were made to the way in which the majority of subjects were assessed, including alterations to coursework, longer exams and the introduction of exams in subjects where previously there had been none.

Exam standards 'have not changed'

However, the SQA was at pains to stress that the content being taught in class was the same and the same standard had been maintained – a candidate who would have received an A last year would have received one this year, said Ms Robertson.  

Ms Robertson, who is just over two weeks into her new role, said: “Throughout the awarding process the impact of the extension of question papers was closely monitored, including the impact it would have on candidates, and no significant impacts were identified by assessors and we believe the assessments have performed to standard.

“The key thing is the course content is unchanged and the standards have been maintained over time – an A last year would have been an A this year.”

She added that there had been a variety of changes to assessment and that those changes had been “quite modest” in some subject areas, such as English and maths.

However, the SQA data shows that the attainment rate in these subjects still decreased by roughly two percentage points. For Higher English, the A to C attainment rate dropped from 75.9 per cent in 2018 to 73.2 per cent this year; for Higher maths, the attainment rate dropped from 74.5 per cent last year to 72.4 per cent this year.

The five practical Higher subjects that had an exam this year where previously none existed before were: care; childcare and development; dance; fashion and textile technology; and photography.

Three of these subjects saw a significant drop in the attainment rate at A to C: dance; fashion and textile technology; and photography.

For Higher dance, the proportion of pupils achieving an A to C grade last year was 91.8 per cent, compared with 82.9 per cent this year; for Higher fashion and textile technology, 81.6 per cent of pupils achieved an A to C last year, but 74.4 per cent did this year; and for Higher photography, 86.6 per cent achieved an A to C grade last year, as compared to 78.2 per cent this year.

There was a more modest drop in A to C attainment for childcare and development, which fell from 68.8 per cent to 65.1 per cent.

The remaining subject with a newly introduced exam, care, had a rise in A to C attainment of 0.6 percentage points.

Responding to the drop in attainment for Higher dance, SQA director of qualifications Gill Stewart pointed out that attainment remained high.

Ms Stewart said: “It’s important to note that what is assessed in the paper was previously assessed in the unit assessments. The actual standard of what’s required from young people has not changed – so it’s being assessed now through a small question paper, rather than unit assessments.

“The other point I would make is the attainment rate for Higher dance is still high, so it’s still a good strong performance for Scotland’s young people who are taking Higher dance.”

The Higher pass rate overall has been falling since the 2015 introduction of the current version of the Higher. In 2015, 79.2 per cent of students achieved an A to C pass in the new Higher (although that year was exceptional as some students also sat the old Higher, which overlapped for one year and had an attainment rate of 76.7 per cent).

In 2016, 77.2 per cent of pupils achieved an A to C; in 2017, 77 per cent did; in 2018, it was 76.8 per cent, and this year 74.8 per cent.

Last year, SQA data showed the National 5 pass rate for A-C grades falling to 77.4 per cent from 79.5 per cent after barely shifting in previous years. In 2017-18, the unit assessments were removed from N5 resulting in longer exams in some subjects. There were changes to coursework and exams where previously there had been none.

This year the A to C attainment rate at N5 rose slightly from 77.4 per cent last year to 78.2 per cent. However, it is down over a longer period of time: when the new National qualifications were sat for the first time in 2014, 81.1 per cent of students achieved an A to C grade at N5.

*Tes Scotland is live blogging throughout exam results day.

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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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