Can the SQA pass this exam?

16th November 2012 at 00:00

From the perspective of northern Britain, it might seem that a single national exam board is a better model than the fractious, competitive variant south of the border. However, the fact that no one in Scotland appears to be complaining about examination questions does not necessarily justify self-satisfaction.

I am aware of exam issues in three of the humanities subjects alone. Take this example from the Standard grade Credit modern studies exam. The question had two sources, both tables of election statistics, followed by a quote from Peter Dougan: "In the 2005 and 2010 general elections, only one country had voter turnout below the UK figure. The country with the smallest increase in turnout between 2001 and 2010 would have had fewer Conservative MPs in 2010 if single transferable vote had been used."

The four-mark question then stated: "Using only the information above, give one reason to support and one reason to oppose the view of Peter Dougan."

The question was ambiguous, as 2005 and 2010 could be taken separately or together. The SQA meant to convey the idea that only one country fulfils the statement in both years, so it should have read: "In both the 2005 and 2010 general elections ..." If pupils read the question as two separate and independent general elections, they were unable to fulfil the rubric of the question. Hence the question is invalid.

Soon after the exam, I contacted the qualification manager for modern studies, who responded: "The principal assessor and the setting team ... have confirmed that Question 1(c) as it stands is valid". No justification was given. The SQA even acknowledged that "there could be an alternative way of interpreting this question".

Where can teachers turn if they are dissatisfied with the SQA's in-house response, since Scotland does not have an independent exam scrutiny body? I contacted the chief executive of the SQA, only to receive a stock answer that the matter was being dealt with through the SQA's post-examination procedures and no pupil would be disadvantaged.

Now we have the external assessment report that states: "The wording of this question caused difficulty with many candidates. A number of candidates achieved full credit, but most did not. A change to the marking instructions allowed for different interpretations of the view. This allowed many candidates, who would otherwise have been awarded zero marks, to achieve two marks."

So those candidates who interpreted it differently were given a maximum of two marks and were disadvantaged because of the SQA's poor setting of the question.

What the SQA should have done was to declare the question invalid and discount the marks for all candidates. Instead, it has published the question unamended in the 2012 past papers section of its website, thereby compounding the issue for any of this year's candidates who may face it in a practice test.

Donald Morrison, PT humanities, Ellon Academy, Aberdeenshire.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today