Editorial - SQA must calm nerves over exam standards

5th August 2011 at 01:00

This week marks the 10th anniversary of the SQA's infamous exams crisis of 2001. That Scotland's exams body has made such a strong recovery is a cause for celebration. Indeed, when Janet Brown joined the Scottish Qualifications Authority as chief executive four years ago, she was particularly struck by the commitment shown by staff to the organisation. Since then, she has witnessed international recognition of the SQA's standing (page 14).

But at home, there remains a frisson of nervousness about any changes to the exams system. The recognition of the potential for disaster is nowhere more acute than within the SQA itself - look no further than this week's results-texting blip. History explains why it has carried out an unprecedented level of consultation with classroom teachers over changes to the new National 4 and 5 qualifications.

Although Scotland's most powerful education union, the EIS, would acknowledge the wisdom of taking a fresh look at the appeals system, the SQA still has some way to go to persuade some of its leaders that pupils will not be disadvantaged. The current system is far from perfect, teachers, parents and even SQA assessors argue (page 31). With the dropping of the derived grades system has come a replacement that's overly-reliant on prelim evidence, which in turn has created an obsession with gathering material that would satisfy the SQA in the event of an appeal. Last year, appeals were lodged on 5.9 per cent of results (63,000), which translates into a lot of young people.

The current impetus for change is driven by the SQA's need to trim its appeals costs of around pound;770,000 at a time of financial austerity. But the parallel argument is that the new National qualifications will be based more on continuous assessment and less on external exams. The changing nature of assessment, therefore, lends itself to a greater reliance on other forms of evidence than prelims in cases where a student does not appear to have performed as expected on the day of the exam. If more of the final mark is made up of the work done over one or two years, rather than last-minute cramming, the exam result is more likely to reflect the student's overall ability, so the argument goes. The fly in the ointment, however, will be the growing reliance on teachers to carry out that continuous assessment. And what are the bets that this increased workload will not attract an increase in remuneration?

As the introduction of Nationals 4 and 5 draws nearer, there are no signs of battle-lines being drawn as they were, more than a decade ago, over Higher Still. But questions will emerge over the coming months over the maintenance of standards and reassurances will be sought over the integrity of the qualifications system.

Gillian Macdonald is away.

Elizabeth Buie, Deputy Editor.

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