Simplify the data or you'll drown again

20th October 2000 at 01:00
The SQA must act to staunch the flood of unit assessments that has done so much damage, says Judith Gillespie

LISTENING to John Elvidge, head of the Scottish Executive Education Department, as he gave evidence to the Parliament's education committee inquiry into the exams fiasco, a stranger would have been forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.

After all, more than 97 per cent of the certificates were accurate and the Scottish Qualifications Authority nearly coped. There was no data excess as the total amount handled by the SQA increased by only a third overall. The problem came out of the old, previously reliable Scottish Examination Board sector and had nothing to do with the former Scottish Vocational Education Council element although, of course, the SQA was a single organisation, not one made up of two halves.

Listening to David Elliot, former director of awards with the SQA, our stranger would have had a very different impression. His evidence told of an organisation in crisis, coping with one massive setback after another until finally it was overwhelmed by huge amounts of data.

My own take on affairs is closer to Mr Elliot's version than Mr Elvidge's. An increase of a third is not insignificant - think of pay rises or inflation at 33 per cent. Moreover, that whole increase in data came out of Higher Still, which itself formed only a small part of the SQA's qualification portfolio. Put another way, this "small" section of SQA's work saw such a massive increase in data that it resulted in an overall increase of a third.

Worse, the data was end-loaded. Many youngsters were doing all the unit assessments together at the very end of the course, immediately before the external assessment.

The perspective on this is important because of what you see as necessary to avert a similar crisis this year. If you take the Elvidge "minimalist" position then the problem is not great and can probably be solved by putting in the odd extra data manager. However, if you take the "SQA was overwhelmed" view then far more drastic action is needed - either a lot more data managers or a reduction in the amount of data to be handled if a similar crisis is to be averted next year. The problem becomes much more urgent once you consider that several new courses, with a consequential increase in data, are under way this year for the first time.

Now it may be good, in a period of high unemployment, to create a lot more jobs, but that's not the situation now. In any case, the data entry for the various qualifications is a complex business and cannot be done by just anyone. Also, the excess in data is not just a problem for the SQA. Schools have to key in all the information on unit assessments and resits.

Reducing the amount of data which has to be handled makes sense all the way round. However, there are a number of considerations that have to be bone in mind. The 2000-01 session is already well under way and it's not sensible to make drastic changes to courses which are already up and running. Survey evidence, taken before the SQA fiasco clouded everyone's view, would suggest that parents and pupils quite like the units. They help students work at a steady pace rather than dreaming through the year and then doing a study crash at the end. FE colleges find the units well suited to their students' needs for incremental learning, which is sometimes over a longer period of time.

So what is needed is a change which reduces the data burden but protects the course format, including the units. My proposal would be that where students take the course in a single year, unit assessments are left totally to the schools or colleges. Teachers could use National Assessment Bank materials or their own tests to satisfy themselves that the students were competent at the work, hold the information in schools, and confirm the accuracy of their judgment when the student passed the external assessment which in turn would trigger automatic recording of unit passes.

This would immediately remove the requirement for centres to pass on data on internal assessment in at least 70 per cent of cases - the percentage of students who, on previous figures, passed Higher.

However, if students wanted to do a freestanding unit, either in another subject or at a different level, teachers would undertake formal assessment of that unit and the information would be passed to the SQA for recording. Similarly, if a student wanted to collect the course over more than a year - if for example they were working on a part-time basis - then similarly the units would be formally assessed and the pass recorded by the SQA.

This just leaves those students who fail the end exam. In this case schools could pass over the information they held so that the SQA had a record of the units which had been passed. And, under the Higher Still regime of courses at different levels, fewer students are likely to be involved than the 30 per cent of entrants who failed the old Higher.

The advantage of this system is that it protects the format of the current Higher Still and it does not make a divide between schools and FE as it is the time taken to do the course which is the determining factor on whether unit passes are formally recorded or not. However, at a stroke it reduces the amount of data handling.

It can also be done this year, thus reducing the likelihood of the SQA being overwhelmed again and another group of students finding that they have been given no award because the data on their internal unit passes has not been entered into the SQA's computer. It also has the support of all the unions - all, that is, except the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Judith Gillespie is development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.

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