The fate of National 4 remains a preoccupation for many teachers. When Tes Scotland asked school staff this summer what their hopes were for the new school year, a number responded that their big wish was that an external exam would be introduced for N4.
One issue teachers highlight is that without grades the pupils who do really well at N4 – as opposed to just scraping through – do not get the credit they deserve. Teachers also highlight “variations in moderation between schools”, a problem an external exam would solve.
Here, we take a look at what the exam results tell us about N4 entries and attainment this year and reveal what the SQA told Tes Scotland yesterday about the future of the qualification.
Background: ‘Passes are being handed out like sweeties’
The figures: SQA results 2019: Key statistics
Short read: Higher pass rate falls
So, what did the entries for N4 look like this year?
Since the Nationals were introduced in 2014, there has been a 14.5 per cent drop in entries at N4. This year entries fell from 106,033 to 104,866. However, if you take out those who gained an N4 as a fallback, having failed the N5 exam (through the process known as Recognising Positive Achievement or RPA), then the number of entries at N4 rose last year and the same is true this year.
What do these updated figures look like?
If you take out those who gained an N4 as a fallback (around 9,000 candidates), course entries for N4 rose from 95,119 to 95,870 this year. As of next year it will only be pupils who are entered for N4 who can gain the qualification, because RPA is being withdrawn.
And the N4 pass rate?
The pass rate has decreased steadily since the qualification was introduced. Back in 2014 the pass rate was 93 per cent and this year it was 88.5 per cent. A declining pass rate can be cause for concern – the steadily declining pass rate at Higher hit the headlines yesterday – but in the case of N4 it might be welcomed, given that many teachers are concerned that there’s an expectation that all pupils should pass. One teacher writing for Tes Scotland earlier this year talked about “over-lenient and often downright fraudulent passes at National 4”. The teacher said the qualification was “being handed out like sweeties”.
However, when we asked the SQA about why the pass rate might be falling, new chief executive Fiona Robertson pointed out that it could be down to the reducing number of pupils gaining the qualification through RPA.
What do teachers say?
There still seems to be an appetite for an external exam, as reflected in the tweets below.
I do still think that a Pass doesn’t differentiate between the varying pupils in N4 - some scrape through and some get so very close to N5. I also find it strange that 50% gets a pass at N5 and yet we expect near-perfection In Outcomes to pass N4 - strange!— Sean O'Hara (@seanohara07) August 7, 2019
I totally agree with this and believe some form of external moderation and/or exam needs to take place to ensure consistency of standards.— The Home Economics Teacher (@MrsRichards_HEc) August 7, 2019
A true exam for N4 would filter out many who think progression to N5 Maths is going to be easy.— Jay Natesan (@jay_natesan) August 7, 2019
One tweet in support of the status quo came from a parent who was in favour of doing away with exams altogether.
Controversially I don’t think there should be exams at all. Ongoing assessment is enough to measure learner interpretation and understanding. Exams can be a memory test and a measure of who can perform better in exam conditions. Employers measure ongoing performance. Parent view.— Jacqueline Kerr (@kerr_jacqueline) August 7, 2019
What does the SQA say?
On the question of whether the qualification was "being handed out like sweeties", SQA director of qualifications development Gill Stewart told Tes Scotland that assessment judgements were made by schools and colleges and "quality-assured" by the SQA.
Ms Stewart added: "It’s a well-established qualification. People know what the standard is and we certainly looked at our quality assurance approach last year and made some enhancements to that. But the decisions about who passes and who does not pass are made at a local level by individual schools."
And an N4 external exam?
Ms Robertson said: “The position was made clear by the government in October 2018. The key message was that the internal assessment approach for National 4 should be unchanged and that the focus should be on enhancing the status of National 4 as a credible pathway through senior phase, and that’s what we are seeking to do here at the SQA.”