Pressing question of error

21st December 2012 at 00:00

Does the Guinness Book of Records have a "most error-strewn exam questions" section? If so, I reckon a 24-word question containing a misplaced apostrophe and two factually incorrect statements might be a strong candidate for inclusion.

Well-connected TESS readers will already know about this exam blunder. No? But this exam was sat by pupils six months ago and there has been no publicity about it whatsoever. I forget. This is Scotland, where a monopoly exam board reigns supreme with no independent regulatory framework to hold the Scottish Qualifications Authority to account in terms of exam standards and quality.

Here is the Higher politics question in all its splendour: "Steven Luke's classifications of types of legitimacy, authority and power are far more relevant for the 21st century than those of Max Weber. Discuss. (20)"

The wording of the question clearly implies that Steven Lukes classified all three types (note the plural "classifications"). In fact, he only classified power. Weber did not classify power. Hence two factual errors.

Knowing how averse the SQA is to publicly admitting mistakes, I sought my own independent academic scrutiny of the question. I submitted a first letter to the SQA calling for the question to be declared invalid. No response to that. The second response from the SQA merits quoting: "... with regard to the order of the theorists, it may have been more appropriate to have referred to Weber first in the question and our examiners will bear this in mind for future questions". Try reordering the question yourself and bask in the incompetence.

Unlike Weber, Professor Lukes is alive and teaching at New York University. Here is his response to my email: "This is indeed a sorry tale and I am distressed to learn of it. The setting of this question is, I agree with you, shocking. It is inaccurate and misleading and grossly unfair to the pupils who were unfortunate enough to try to answer it; and the person who set the question was, plainly, lazy and careless. Moreover, the reaction of the authorities seems to be one of indifference to your entirely justified complaints."

What more can I do? I have sought and received support from two academics, written two letters to the SQA, had two meetings with the local MSP, had one letter back from Alasdair Allan, the minister for learning, science and Scotland's languages. Result? The question has not been changed in the 2012 past papers, the SQA still has not admitted that the question is invalid and there is no reference to the issue in the external assessment report.

If ever there was evidence of the SQA's inability to regulate itself, this surely is it. Will we see Sheriff McOfqual riding into town any time soon? Perhaps the Scottish parliament is best placed to answer that question.

Donald Morrison, PT Humanities, Ellon Academy, Aberdeenshire (writing in a personal capacity).

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