I fear the f-word in exams

15th February 2013 at 00:00

The SQA exams debacle in 2000 threw up an interesting etymological curiosity: the word "fiasco" became shorthand not only for the idea of a humiliating failure, but also for the meltdown in the Scottish examinations system of that year.

Twelve years on and no one in education would wish to see the return of the F-word at a time when the SQA is developing a range of new qualifications. However, there is a danger that the reputation of the SQA could be tarnished by its persistent reluctance to answer legitimate questions about the quality of its exams.

There were mistakes in the 2012 exams concerning three humanities subjects. I have previously written in TESS about two of those, the Standard grade modern studies Q1c and the Higher politics QA1. The latter was embarrassingly wrong and invalid; yet the SQA placed it unchanged in the past papers. Giving extra marks to those who sat the question simply buries the issue, rewarding the unfortunate candidates for the SQA's own failures.

The third error-strewn subject is Higher religious, moral and philosophical studies, where the complaint relates initially to assessments (NABs and final papers) in 2009-10. The SQA has failed so far to answer a number of questions about the validity of many of its assessment questions, which do not comply with either the mandatory content of the relevant units or the assessment criteria set out in the course arrangements.

Since the SQA has refused to address these assessment issues, and component problems associated with the "validated" marking instructions on its website, the issues have yet to be resolved. Consequently, there are ongoing concerns about the validity of many questions and marking instructions in the 2011 and 2012 RMPS Higher assessments.

It is clear that the SQA considers it can remain silent - and thus avoid openness and transparency - when faced with probing questions about the quality of its assessments. After all, there are no regulatory sanctions within the Scottish educational system to call it to account. The Scottish Parliament needs to investigate these matters. The more the SQA avoids the issue of exam question validity (the V-word), the more likely it is that the F-word will make an unwelcome return.

Donald Morrison, Ellon Academy. Writing in a personal capacity.

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