This week the data from the standard tables on exam results (STACs) were made available to schools by the Scottish Executive Education Department.
Unfortunately, the outcomes were expressed as a percentage of presentations, not of the S4 roll.
When the Scottish Qualifications Authority issued the 2004 exam results, it expressed them as percentages of presentations. This showed that the "pass rate" increased, which led to a range of reactions about standards falling.
However, as many commentators pointed out, expressing passes as a percentage of presentations is open to manipulation and does not provide "real" information about whether more pupils in a year group had obtained a Higher or a Standard grade. Although the Education Minister was accused this year of manipulating the statistics, I do not believe that was the case, since the SQA has been presenting the "big picture" in this way for a few years.
The STACs team have put training material for use with the revised tables on the web and even here we can see erroneous conclusions drawn from the data, which is based on awards as a percentage of presentations.
The S4 maths example says the 2003 data at Standard grade Credit is the best performance over a period of years. In fact, when you express the data as a percentage of the S4 roll, the 2003 Credit awards turn out to be the worst year. The same occurs in the art and design and the modern studies examples.
Other commentators have made the point that looking at outcomes as a percentage of presentations could lead to an exclusive system whereby pupils might be denied the opportunity to sit exams in order to boost these artificial and erroneous figures.
I have canvassed many of my education authority colleagues and spoken to headteachers and most of them want to have the data based on S4 rolls included in the tables provided to schools and authorities. If it is not, how can we measure progress? How will we know if more pupils nationally or in a locality now have a Credit award in, say, computing? Where is this data?
There may have been practical reasons why this table was dropped. However, it would appear that no guidance will be provided by the SEED warning that the use of passes as a percentage of presentations on its own can lead to erroneous and dangerously unsafe conclusions.
I hope that this will be rectified and clear guidance issued to schools and authorities.
Ron Mitchell Research and development officer Education Services Inverclyde Council