It's time the exam appeals system was sent for review

5th August 2011 at 01:00
It must be fairer to absentee candidates and not just act as a second chance for students to get the grade they'd really like

Those who know me will certainly agree that I'm close to my sell-by date, one of the many who are in the twilight stage of working life and able to look back to times when change in the world of education seemed to be clearly managed, rather than just happening, and all at a more sensible pace.

One of the high points of my career was being invited to attend the "winding up" celebration of the work of the Scottish Examination Board; working for the Scottish Qualifications Authority at the 2010 appeals, in my 20th and final year as principal assessor for Higher chemistry, was certainly one of the lowest.

Maybe, just maybe, after a succession of increasingly frustrating experiences, there is now a glimmer of hope. Log on to the SQA website, navigate to "More" and then "Business Intelligence Services", click on 2010 and you will find the key messages regarding the appeals.

First, note that at both Higher and Advanced Higher, the percentage of entries that give rise to appeals is greater than 10 per cent. And costs are rising, too, from pound;697,689 in 2008 to pound;770,578 in 2010 - this does not include the considerable amount of centre and SQA staff time spent in processing appeals and dealing with queries.

But it is pleasing that there is SQA recognition that the purpose of appeals appears to have changed from providing a safety net for candidates who had "a bad day" to giving a second chance for candidates to gain the grade that they (or the parents) would really like. This is particularly the case at Higher, where only 40.7 per cent of appeals are successful, indicating that the majority of candidate evidence does not support the estimates submitted.

However, it is in Section 5 that we find the real reason for hope, with a public acknowledgment that "concerns have been raised about the current system, which is based predominately on alternative evidence, encourages over- assessment and detracts from the time available for good quality teaching and learning. In addition, the time taken to compile the required evidence is very onerous for all concerned".

What is the SQA thinking in response? "The future scenarios being considered include the possibility of restricting the use of alternative evidence to cases of adverse circumstances and widening the range of alternative appeals services offered, for example clerical check and re- mark of exam script."

In this climate, I have composed a wish-list.

My first wish would certainly be for a fair deal for absentee candidates. At present, if the school does not fulfil the very tight technical requirements, the evidence for an absentee candidate may not be considered at all. Also, being absent for the final part of a course can lead to an inability of the centre to provide evidence for that part of the course. In both cases, the candidate appears to have no chance of gaining an award. As a parent myself, I find this highly unsatisfactory.

Second, my hope is that the process delivers successful appeals for all candidates who have evidence that clearly shows they deserve an upgrade. At the moment, there are many appeals that are based on evidence that can be quickly judged by experienced examiners as sound, but where a technical requirement has not been fulfilled, and so the appeal is not processed.

The centres do have the chance to pay a fee to have the appeal reconsidered, but this can be rather a "messy" process, for there is a lack of clarity around cer- tain issues. For example, it appears that what is meant by "home-generated questions" is unclear to some centres and there also seems to be a lack of consistency in this area within SQA, partly because it is difficult for teams to check on sources.

Third, such is the discrepancy between performance in the evidence and performance in the actual examination, it seems that some candidates are able to achieve a grade that is undeserved. This could happen in a number of ways. With the rise in use of commercially available prelims, it is inevitable that in some cases the most recent will find their way into the home-tutoring service and candidates will have seen the instrument used to generate the estimate. In more extreme cases, there could be genuine concern about the way evidence is generated.

In terms of the actual procedures, the hope is for the rhetoric about purpose, time and demands on centres to be translated into practice. What is required is clear and consistent documentation and achievable procedures for all teachers. In addition, ways to improve the effectiveness of communication have to be considered. At present, appeals can be completely rejected for a matter totally out of the control of candidates - something that many believe to be very clearly wrong - so every year with the present procedures is seen as one too many.

The use of the phrase "widening the range of alternative appeals services offered" opens up the possibility that there could be different ways of providing evidence. We may even find that both centres and examiners will be allowed to bring at least an element of professional judgment to their respective tasks, although this would need careful moderation by SQA to ensure consistency.

Is thought being given to charging a fee for each appeal and returning it if the appeal is successful? Who knows, centres may even be encouraged to show that they are good at estimating by providing something. let's call it an "order of merit". Now those of my vintage would see this as a very welcome turning back of the clock in order to move forward!

Douglas Buchanan is a lecturer at the Moray House School of Education and a former Principal Assessor for chemistry.

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