SQA's triple shield against 'fix'

THE A-level rogue results "fix" which has hit some Scottish independent schools and thousands of students in England is significantly different to the Diet 2000 exam crisis north of the border, it emerged this week.

Botched data transfer in an over-complex and untested system essentially affected the Highers but, south of the border, confidence in the veracity and worth of the revised A-levels has been severely damaged by alleged retrospective interference in grade setting by one of three exam boards.

It is said results by the OCR board were downgraded to prevent rising passes caused by the new modular two-year A-level system with its emphasis on internally graded coursework.

Mike Tomlinson, former chief inspector of schools in England, is due today ( Friday) to report on the national fiasco.

Could it happen in Scotland? No, according to the Scottish Qualifications Authority, now recovering from its battering two years ago.

It remains, despite recent legislation, the country's only exams agency - at arm's length from ministers and with no intermediary such as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which monitors the three separate exam agencies in England. The QCA is suspected of leaning on the OCR board.

Somewhat ironically, Sir William Stubbs, QCA chairman and a native Scot, accused the SQA of complacency only a few months ago. His brother is an assistant secondary head in Glasgow.

Anton Colella, the SQA's director of qualifications, said that a key difference in the systems is the graded coursework in England at the new AS-level (the equivalent of Higher) and the A2-level (the equivalent of Advanced Higher).

South of the border, both levels are linked through a modular structure, a factor that has complicated the process, according to Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. Mr Lucas wants to move to the Scottish division between Higher and Advanced Higher.

Mr Colella said that coursework and unit assessment in Scotland do not affect the final grade, which remains based on an external exam. In England, strong performance in coursework has lifted grades in the revised system, leading to what is known as "grade inflation".

Pass rates at Higher rose by around 2 per cent in 2001 because of the new Scottish exams but have fallen back this year to the 69 per cent levels which were the norm before the advent of the post-16 reforms. That in itself caused public anxiety and a ministerial review.

The year on year statistic of 70 per cent passes at Higher and 30 per cent fails is said to be the result of the natural abilities of the cohorts. Exam boundaries between the different passes differ each year based on the cohort and difficulty of the exam but by no more than 0.5-1 per cent.

Mr Colella argues that SQA candidates have a triple protection against unfair results. The pass mark meetings in June between the principal assessors in each subject and SQA officials set the grades and are based on years of professional and independent experience.

The "derived grades" internal procedure deployed by the SQA picks up rogue results before students receive their final grade and is based on teacher estimates. If the school and teacher are "concordant" with national standards, individual grades will be adjusted.

The third outlet is the extensive appeals process unique to the Scottish system, Mr Colella said.

John Hart, the SQA's head of qualifications strategy, said there was seldom much dispute about pass rates and grade boundaries. "It's a coalescing of statistical monitoring and a professional subject view, backed up by post hoc comment from teaching associations, universities and others."

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