Tabloid number crunching

20th August 2004 at 01:00
A prime example of how educational news can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) to suit prejudice came with the claim on Monday that ministers "massaged" the Highers results to make them look good. The Scotsman manufactured the story into a lead for its first weekday issue in tabloid size, accompanied by a promise from the editor that the paper will remain "authoritative".

Its so-called analysis reveals that the Highers pass rate has gone up because fewer pupils are being presented. In fact, more pupils are now being presented for the level of exam at which they are likely to show knowledge and understanding. The two levels of Intermediate exam are beginning to answer the old problem that many candidates were attempting Highers and failing. That was not a criticism of the standard of the Higher or the efforts of teachers and pupils. It simply meant that, as the number of pupils staying on beyond 16 rose, an exam devised for an able minority was being attempted by too wide a range. Hence the 1990-92 Howie committee of inquiry appointed by the Conservatives and the resulting Higher Still programme.

Think of the outcry about falling standards, sink schools and waste of money from self-appointed consumers' champions if thousands of young people were still finishing fifth and sixth year with nothing to show for their efforts. We now have the the Scottish National Party calling for an independent publisher of exam statistics. What evidence is there that the Scottish Qualifications Authority lacks SNP-style independence? Where is the evidence that it does not crunch the numbers accurately, with the annual ups and downs reflecting the different abilities of year groups? This year ministers had evidence of progress and success worth praising.

The media should not, shall we say, massage the facts in order to carp.

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