SQA results: 'We need a system we're all confident in'

After the SQA fiasco, teachers must be at the forefront of reforming the qualifications system, says Robin Macpherson

Robin Macpherson

SQA results: Is Scotland's exams and qualifications system fit for purpose?

If there is any serendipity at all about John Swinney’s U-turn on "exam" results, it’s that we may get the opportunity to re-evaluate and improve how Scottish students are assessed. 

As we all absorb the significance of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) exams fiasco, it seems apposite to rethink assessment processes in Scotland  especially if we’re going to do this all over again without exams next year. 

So what went wrong? Teachers were asked to provide data from across the taught course. This effectively changed the model from terminal to continuous assessment. The latter approach means that evidence is drawn from a fuller domain range, and judgements are based on the trajectory and potential of the students.

Naturally, there will be a degree of teacher bias in the data, but judgements based on a mixture of high-stakes and lower-stakes assessments spread over time will hold more fidelity than our traditional terminal exam system. They are more likely to reflect a student’s learning over a longer period of time in a variety of circumstances. 


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Terminal exams, on the other hand, test only a portion of the curriculum domain, on a given day. The emphasis on performativity is higher, and that suits some students and not others.

Those that perform under pressure fare well, and those that don’t struggle. Luck definitely plays a part; the right questions coming up, good health on the day, and many more such variables. Add the disparities around socioeconomic attainment in exams, and it becomes even more problematic.

SQA results: Should we change our exam system? 

We should now be asking ourselves if the system that we’ve used since 1888 is still fit for purpose, especially given the wider range of assessment opportunities afforded by technology.

Teachers weren’t lying when they submitted their estimates based on in-school attainment, and historical exam data doesn’t lie about terminal exam performance either. The two approaches simply yield different results. So, which one do we want to proceed with?

There are many different continuous assessment models that the SQA could have used to make this summer more equitable and transparent. To give one example, I used to teach the International Baccalaureate’s Middle Years Programme (MYP), which is roughly equivalent to National 5. It definitely has its flaws, but the process it uses to award grades could have been used this year in Scotland.

MYP teachers use a common assessment framework, but have autonomy to design their own content and tasks throughout the course. They collate the data and then award grades using their professional judgement. After grades are submitted, teachers are asked for a portfolio of evidence from a sample of named students across the attainment range. If the teacher’s assessment is deemed accurate, all other grades are confirmed. If the sample raises concerns, further investigation can lead to moderation across the cohort. 

Crucially, the moderator is looking at two things. They scrutinise both pupil attainment and the integrity of assessment. Was the work set suitably challenging? Did the teacher apply the assessment criteria effectively and consistently? This weeds out the grades that are inflated by bias and ensures that teachers learn from the process so that improvements can be made. If we also look at new approaches, such as comparative judgement (advocated by Daisy Christodoulou), we can also improve the accuracy of assessed work significantly. 

There are options out there to improve assessment to make it more robust, accurate and equitable. This will require teacher input and much more open debate than we’ve been used to in Scottish education.

A fundamental learning point from this summer is that major decisions on assessment should be driven by people who know it best, by those people who are accountable to a classroom, not an electorate. The independent review led by Mark Priestley will, I hope, create the impetus for change that will give rise to a system we can all be confident in.

Robin Macpherson is head of college at Robert Gordon's College, in Aberdeen. He tweets @robin_macp

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Robin Macpherson

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