Results speak for themselves

12th August 2005 at 01:00
There are usually two certainties about the annual appearance of the exam results. The Daily Mail and the Tory Party will raise the spectre of exams becoming too easy and of standards being dumbed down. The Government and the exam authorities will equally vehemently deny any such thing. Evidence on these issues is invariably difficult to come by. It is, however, worth repeating the point that the "prizes for all" gibe about Standard grade reflects precisely that: it was designed to be about "assessment for all", the very title indeed of the Dunning report in the 1970s which ushered it in (although whether pupils go around proudly boasting about their "prize" of a Standard grade Foundation award is a moot point).

Scotland's great advantage is that it has one exam body. In England, there is more than a suspicion that competition to win customers affects the standards of question papers and grade inflation is more of an issue. The incremental, almost imperceptible, shift in pass rates and pupil performance in Scotland surely suggests that little slippage in standards is taking place - over five years, let alone in comparison with last year.

Indeed, the pass rates and their increase or decrease vary from subject to subject - 83 per cent in politics and 66 per cent in English in 2005.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority, of course, is most put out at any suggestion it cannot be trusted to set and maintain national standards. "We take this responsibility very seriously," its chief executive said this week. The authority is keen to emphasise the fact that a whole range of professionals, from principal examiners and moderators to markers and teachers, spend many hours each year poring over every exam paper in every subject checking for any signs of dilution, bringing in subject specialists from outwith the SQA as necessary.

But, on the principle that a police force should not investigate itself, it may be time for the SQA to consider fully independent research on standards, to find out whether the worth of a pass in 2005 is in fact the same as it was in 1995. Such research was published at least once before in the past decade, based on a sample of subjects. Despite these concerns, however, at least we are on the right track: the focus is firmly on the performance of the young people of Scotland, not on the performance of the SQA.

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