On your marks

4th November 2011 at 00:00
How the SQA exam system works and what the assessors thought of this year's papers

It has become an annual ritual: exam results come out and media commentators get in a lather about dumbed-down papers and the "younger generation" who can barely string a sentence together.

The truth, according to Scotland's exams body, is far more nuanced, and sometimes the direct opposite of popular belief.

Scottish exams are not getting easier, there is no sign that pupils are getting worse at discerning reliable sources, and a new writing element at English Higher has stunned markers with the quality it has yielded, says the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Robert Quinn, its head of humanities, arts and business, was keen to debunk a number of myths when interviewed by TESS, not least the notion that an exam pass is not what it once was.

"We're comfortable with where we are with attainment - you don't see the massive grade inflation you see down south," he said.

The marking system is calibrated to ensure that an A, B or C is the same as in any other year since major changes to exams about a decade ago. For each subject and level, the principal assessor and SQA qualifications manager meet with an SQA head of service and statistician to decide on a pass mark. Grade boundaries can move up and down to reflect easier or more difficult papers.

Question papers are usually in draft form at least a year before an exam. "Drafts for 2012 are in the can and we're working on 2013," said Mr Quinn, a former senior business lecturer at Paisley's Reid Kerr College.

There may be a team of 10 creating a paper such as Higher English. Once finalised, it undergoes a "scrutineer check": someone outwith the team sits the paper.

Desktop publishers take over as Easter approaches, but there can be late complications - such as the fictional sports drink in a media studies paper that became a real sports drink - which necessitate corrections.

The weeks after exams finish in June are awash with marker-training events. As papers get scrutinised, markers themselves are marked A (reliable), B (consistently severe or lenient) or C (poor and will not be used again).

A process called "finalisation", which has attracted interest from England, looks at candidates hovering around a grade boundary whose paper may need remarking, perhaps because they had a severe marker or their estimate was much higher. A plethora of information is fed into an algorithm to produce a priority list.

"People don't realise that happens," said Mr Quinn. "There's a lot of number-crunching, a lot of science, but there's also a degree of qualitative judgment as well."

It is at this point, in mid-July, that Mr Quinn can finally draw breath and squeeze in a summer holiday, before results are sent out in August.

TESS pored over this year's external assessor reports, as well as revisiting 2010 and 2009 reports, and identified problems that surfaced in several subjects: poor written English, poor handwriting, plagiarism, misleading guidance from teachers, pupils sitting exams at the wrong level, over-preparation and poor use of sources.

The big picture, insists Mr Quinn, is that these are becoming less common or certainly no worse - with one exception.

Handwriting has deteriorated since Mr Quinn took up his role in 2006. Although marks are rarely docked for poor handwriting, he cautioned that "ultimately if we can't read it, it makes it much harder to give it a mark". Assessors in business management, classical studies and geography made particular mention of the issue this year.

Exams may be the only time teenagers write anything by hand, as "it's the norm for coursework to be presented electronically now, because that's what happens in real life".

SQA head of e-assessment Martyn Ware is exploring ways of building up the use of e-assessment as marking technology develops, but, said Mr Quinn, "I don't think you can expect very rapid and immediate change." There are no plans to scrap handwritten exams, he stressed.

Several assessors complained about poor written English and essay-writing, but Mr Quinn puts that in context: "Since 2006 I've not seen any major change."

Plagiarism crops up intermittently, but Mr Quinn said these represented a "drop in the ocean" - 0.017 per cent of entries this year - and often resulted from naivety rather than malpractice. It was slightly less common in 2011 than in 2010, with sophisticated software increasing the chances of detection.

Reports sometimes identify cases where pupils' chances of good results have been undermined by poor guidance from teachers. But Mr Quinn said that the two-way flow of information between SQA and teachers in recent years - largely through "Understanding Standards" events and an associated website - had made an impact: "There's now less opportunity for teachers to misinterpret things."

Cases of pupils, or sometimes whole classes, who regurgitate memorised responses are becoming less common at higher-level exams, but it remains an issue.

"In modern languages, for example, if you answer on a topic that's of interest to you, it's a chance to demonstrate your skills and you've a much better chance of getting a high mark than if you do the old bog- standard stuff," Mr Quinn said.

It has become less common for pupils to be presented inappropriately at Higher and Intermediate, but there are Intermediate 1 subjects where the number of "no awards" are "still not as we'd want - I think we have to address that with the new qualifications".

At Intermediate 1, there were 20 per cent "no awards", compared to 13 per cent at Intermediate 2 across all subjects; in maths, 29.5 per cent of candidates received a "no award" at Intermediate 1 and 21.5 per cent at Intermediate 2; and in music the figures are 16.5 per cent (Intermediate 1) and 4.5 per cent (Intermediate 2).

An Intermediate 1 pass may be seen to have more kudos than an Access qualification, suggests Mr Quinn, by way of explanation for this high level of wrong presentations.

The poor use of sources and over-reliance on the internet cited in some reports is not a major concern overall, but these are areas to keep a close eye on "as we widen the range of assessment outside the exam hall".

The two biggest changes in the 2011 exams diet involved English, with the re-introduction of a writing folio at Intermediate and Higher, and history, which now has a mandatory Scottish history paper.

The Higher English external assessment report was at times effusive about the folio: examiners and markers "felt strongly that the reintroduction of writing into external assessment had been worthwhile"; some pieces of imaginative writing were of "exceptional quality".

But it was also "disappointing to see, in an exercise designed to encourage personal choice and individual interests, that in some centres whole classes had been set identical tasks".

Larry Flanagan - EIS education convener and a principal teacher of English - said pupils had felt "liberated" by the folio, which was less prescriptive than other Higher elements. Mr Quinn described the response as "broadly positive".

The Higher history assessor's report found pupils showing a "good breadth of knowledge" in the mandatory Scottish history element. Neil McLennan, president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History, detected a mixed response, however: "Some are refreshed by the changes, while others have concerns that will need to be addressed."

The big change looming for the SQA, of course, is the introduction of National 4 and 5 qualifications from 2013-14. But soon-to-be-obsolete Standard grade and Intermediates will not be neglected, Mr Quinn promised: "There will in fact be much more of a light shone on standards maintenance when we get into dual-running National 4 and 5 with Intermediates."

He has already written off his traditional July holiday in 2014 - because "meetings will be twice, three times, four times as long as they are now".

15,000 - Number of SQA "appointees" who set, monitored, marked and quality-assured this year's exams.

128 - Number of penalties imposed for plagiarism this year - 0.017 per cent of a total of 733,696 entries.

20% - Proportion of candidates at Intermediate 1 who received "no award" across all subjects, compared to 13 per cent at Intermediate 2.

550 - Number of schools and colleges where exams took place.

External Assessors' reports


Higher candidates continue to be more confident in theory elements. Word processing was poor, with business documents providing unexpected difficulties.

Knowledge of basic administrative terms at Standard grade was lacking: invoice, credit note, internal and external mail, search engine, hyperlink and delegate.

This was the final year of the Advanced Higher, which had 17 candidates. It has been dropped because of low uptake.

Art and design

There were high numbers of outstanding Higher folios, although a "significant number" of presentations were not at Higher level - sometimes all those from a single centre.

The written paper saw a "welcome increase" in study of contemporary Scottish artists and designers, but markers found it "very disheartening" to read copious essays on Chanel's little black dress and Vivienne Westwood's punk t-shirt. The quality of English was sometimes "very poor", and getting worse.

Some centres provided pupils with overly-prescribed worksheets; entire groups of pupils expressed the same opinions.


Higher performance was "very good" and pass rates improved. Literacy levels were good and there was little evidence this time of candidates confusing explanations with descriptions.

Deteriorating spelling plagued terms such as mitochondrion, phospholipid, aleurone and thyroid. Poorer handwriting made answers difficult to read.

At Advanced Higher the standard of English among most candidates was high, but large numbers did not express themselves well. When candidates wrote badly, it was difficult to tell if they had failed to grasp an idea or just expressed it poorly.

Business management

The number of Higher candidates rose six per cent to 6,932, but it was a "slightly weaker" cohort and some were presented at the wrong level.

Candidates appeared to have little knowledge of trends in retailing, many were unable to explain the benefits of ICT in depth, and corporate culture proved a difficult concept.

The discrepancy between Advanced Higher estimates and performance grew, from 10 to 17 per cent.


As in previous years, there are schools in which Higher pupils appear to underperform in Prescribed Practical Activities questions, perhaps due to "lack of active participation in these experimental activities".

Some Intermediate 2 pupils did "very poorly with PPA questions, suggesting they had "no experience of some of these experiments".

Intermediate 2 teachers were told to stress the benefits of rote learning with, for example, chemical reactions and chemical tests.

Some Intermediate 1 pupils scored no marks for two questions by failing to turn a page, "despite a clear instruction".

Classical studies

Markers appeared more vexed than in any other subject about written skills, with increasing examples of poor grammar, punctuation and spelling, even among more able candidates.

"Few other subjects require candidates to write essays worth 20 marks; so they need to be helped with structure, grammar and punctuation," the report states.


It remains concerning that centres present Higher candidates with little chance of passing: 18.5 per cent of entries are "no award".

The language and style of questions for more able candidates had been examined to ensure the paper was similarly difficult to other subjects at Higher.

There remain "significant" numbers of candidates with poor written English. Numbers dropped 5 per cent to 4,124.


A "significant number" of Standard grade pupils were disadvantaged by their teachers giving them "mundane" writing topics - Moi, Ma Famille, Mes Repas, Mes Vetements - which restricted their ability to show off their skills and express opinions.

Listening remains the skill most Higher candidates struggle with, as is often the case across languages and levels.


The new five-year plan for Gaelic aims to double P1 pupils entering Gaelic-medium education annually, to 800, but numbers remain small at exam levels. The 116 Gaidhlig Higher candidates - up from 90 - came as three new centres emerged. There was a slight drop for Gaelic learners' Higher, to 127.


German continues to decline, having been overtaken by Spanish as the second-most popular modern language after French: there were 1,054 Higher candidates, down 11 per cent from 2010. But it may be gaining currency as a second language for keen linguists: 71 per cent at Intermediate 2 had not taken a German qualification before, compared with 52 per cent five years ago.

Higher markers found centres where every candidate's directed-writing response was virtually identical. But overall, schools can be "very proud" of their Higher teaching.


There was a "very encouraging" response to Higher, where the number of candidates jumped 5 per cent to 7,778, including a rise in candidates using relevant and specific examples in answers.

In one Higher question there was "a frustrating number of references to the country of Africa!".

Advanced Higher standards rose significantly, despite fieldwork being plagued by terrible weather. Many sources for geographical issues essays lacked intellectual quality: newspaper articles without back-up from an academic study were unlikely to provide enough rigour.


In the Higher's second year, numbers remained very low although eight more centres presented candidates. There were 26 simplified Mandarin candidates, six for traditional Mandarin and six for Cantonese.


Higher markers observed that some candidates may be annotating diagrams on question papers and not transferring them to answer booklets, so that essential working is missing.

Overall, the 20,550 Higher candidates performed as expected at Higher, with few "really poor" marks and five candidates scoring full marks.

At Standard grade, where there were more successful candidates at all three levels, it was "encouraging" to see a greater variety of problem- solving strategies.

Credit pupils performed well in simultaneous equations, trigonometry, equation of a line, quadratic formula and percentage questions. More practice is required in numerical and algebraic fractions.

Modern studies

The subject has become more popular at all levels, with Higher numbers up 4 per cent to 7,673.

Standard grade pupils handled questions on European issues "very poorly". Information on the Common Agricultural Policy was out-of-date and the European Defence Force was confused with NATO.

Advanced Higher dissertations overused websites such as Wikipedia and BBC News as sources.


A "major factor" in improved performance at Standard grade could be that it is among the first exams to take place, ensuring course material is fresh in minds.

The subject is still increasing in popularity, but Higher numbers (5,874) rose only marginally this year. There remains evidence of candidates' responses lacking depth when asked to "discuss" or "justify"; many "tend to describe and sometimes explain rather than show critical thinking". Some pupils force pre-planned answers into questions, resulting in "very low marks".


Problems - including potential malpractice - have emerged in the use of university facilities for Advanced Higher investigations.

"This should not be seen as a quick fix so that the investigation can be completed with one or two afternoons of lab work," the report states. High-scoring "university investigations" had either introductory experiments done in school or a more specialised experiment attempted at university to round off the investigation.

Some schools sending pupils to universities had all of them attempt identical investigations: "This is not recommended and these cases may be considered under suspected malpractice."

There was a "pleasing" 5 per cent rise in Higher candidates, to 9,445.


Uptake of religious, moral and philosophical studies continues to grow fast: 3,756 Higher candidates constituted a 19 per cent year-on-year jump. Once again, the proportion of S6 candidates (60 per cent) was greater than S5s; the vast majority do RMPS as a "crash" Higher.

"It would be an injustice to the hard work and creativity of many RE teachers to attribute the increasing popularity of the subject to primarily anything other than their commitment," the report states.

Buddhism was by far the most popular religion, with Christianity second. Crime and punishment was overwhelmingly the most popular moral issue.

Use of sources was "sparse" and candidates often did not seem to understand "evaluate", which was "frustrating because evaluation of views is at the heart of what RE teachers do during class discussion".


Spanish goes from strength to strength. More schools are teaching the language, and a growing number is making it the main language - although French remains the most commonly-taught language by a long way.

There was a 15 per cent increase in Standard grade candidates, to 3,462. Higher numbers went up 10 per cent to 1,488.

Original headline: Examiners sort fact from fiction as they seek to hush the critics

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