From him that hath not shall be taken

16th September 2005 at 01:00
The use of derived grades to revise exam scores is unjust and discriminatory, says Elizabeth Doherty

For many, the exam results fiasco of only a few years ago is now just an unfortunate memory. The episode led to outcries such as had never been heard before and one of the promised outcomes was that such incompetence was never to be allowed to happen again. What had previously been regarded as a very robust system had, quite simply, failed to deliver.

If there was a saving grace about that situation, it was that incompetence of one sort or another had been to blame. Now, however, we are once again faced with an anomalous situation, this time regarding appeals procedures, which is entirely of the Scottish Qualifications Authority's own creation.

I refer specifically to the question of derived grades.

Let me deal first with the general principles involved. Any national examination system has to be seen to be totally fair and impartial. It must never be open to the accusation that the system seems to favour one group of candidates against another. In this regard, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.

Already, attention has been drawn to the apparent inequalities, which seem to favour students from more "advantaged" schools, either through fee-paying or postcode selection, as against those who attend less "advantaged" schools. The former are often described as successful, while the latter are termed unsuccessful.

Now this is not the place to debate the efficacy of such a school system.

It is, however, the place to ask the SQA to stop using a system that discriminates against those in schools where numbers are insufficient in a subject to allow derived grade procedures to take place, or where the numbers at a particular grade are too small. It is not an argument based on the principle of equity to advance, as justification, saving time or money.

The examination system is about huge numbers of individual children each year and even larger numbers over time. Appropriate use of computers to rationalise and make more efficient this cumbersome beast is entirely appropriate (unless it happens to be the computer that caused the debacle of only a few years ago). However, where such use of machines causes the plight of individuals to be ignored or worsened, then it is time to think again.

Let us consider two cases. The first concerns pupils' rights. Two young people (from different schools) achieve the same marks in the examination.

One, because of the number of others in the school who succeeded in achieving the predicted grade, is automatically upgraded. The other, who might be the only one, or one of a smaller group, in that same subject in the school, might not be awarded the predicted grade. That is bizarre and unjust.

The second case drawn to my attention is even more graphic. It concerns a student in the advantaged school who achieves a mark in the low 60s, resulting in a B grade, but who is automatically upgraded to an A award because of their relative position in the list of predicted grades. A second student in a less advantaged school achieves a mark in the high 70s and is also awarded a B. Despite the 15-plus difference in actual marks in the examination, this student may not be upgraded because of the absence of comparable numbers of predicted grades in their group.

The evangelist who records the words "To him that hath shall be given and from him that hath not shall be taken away, even that which he hath" might well have had this inequitable system in mind.

Now, let us remember that both students have taken these examinations under exactly the same stressful conditions. They have both sat prelims under examination conditions. Using the results of these prelims, and no doubt other evidence, the schools predict A grades. One misses out by as many as 16 marks; the other by perhaps half a mark.

What conceivable justification can there be for the first student to be automatically upgraded with such a discrepancy in predicted and actual performance, while the second has to undergo the appeals process which may or may not lead to upgrading? In any event, what kind of system is it which argues that a mark in the high 70s in any examination is anything other than an A?

The only "robust" system would be one that totally removed such anomalies.

The former appeals procedure may have become increasingly cumbersome. It was, however, fair and seen to be so. As I suggested earlier, this is not simply a question of procedures. It involves the rights of all young people. The very last thing the SQA would wish to be accused of in the 21st century is social exclusion.

To make matters worse, the SQA itself has drawn attention to the derived grade arrangements in the press, not in a defensive way, but in an aggressive and unfair attack on the integrity of teachers. One national newspaper carried the headline: "Teachers face spot checks over exam appeals". The first paragraph read: "The exam body is making random checks to prevent teachers manipulating a computerised appeals system which last year automatically upgraded the results of up to 9,000 pupils."

These new checks, the SQA claimed, would ensure that the system was "robust". (Is that another word for "honest"?) This constitutes a quite gratuitous insult to the many thousands of teachers across the country who not only prepare students for the external examinations but who also take part in the marking (and, incidentally, the appeals) procedures. Let the SQA now apologise to all those in schools, advantaged and disadvantaged, for this totally unacceptable slur on their professional integrity.

Let the last word go to Lord Mackay of Clashfern, former Lord Chancellor in the last Conservative government: "Where two students enter the same examination in the same subject at the same level and submit identical papers, they should receive the same mark, or at least the same level."

Surely the corollary is also true: where they do not - they should not.

Elizabeth Doherty is headteacher of St Columba's High in Gourock.

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