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Neil Munro reports on why the SQA is so confident that standards are for ever.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority says it would welcome an independent analysis of the systems it has in place to maintain standards.

The authority is adamant it goes to considerable lengths to ensure there is no erosion. But Mike Haggerty, its head of communications, told The TES Scotland this week: "If it is deemed appropriate, we would welcome an independent scrutiny of our standards system and would be happy to make our evidence available to any body or organisation."

The SQA's move comes after Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Tories'

education spokesperson, called for "an independent appraisal of the exam system". Lord James expressed concern about the danger of Scottish qualifications becoming "debased" after the Standard grade pass rate reached 97.3 per cent, the Higher pass rate rose to 71.2 per cent and more A and B grades were awarded at Higher.

The same calls were heard in England this week when A-level results were published.

The SQA believes, however, that it has as rigorous a system as possible and has just published a guide on how it sets pass marks, one of the most important ways standards are preserved. Around 245 pass mark meetings are held over a six-week period between June and July, when the results of about 100,000 candidates from 450 exam centres are scrutinised.

These are internal discussions within the SQA and no independent observers or experts are present. The meetings are chaired by Anton Colella, the SQA's chief executive, or one of his senior colleagues, advised by one of the authority's National Qualifications business managers. Also present are the principal assessor for the particular course, a qualifications manager, who typically has responsibility for a number of courses, and the SQA's statistician.

The authority acknowledges that "setting grade boundaries and pass marks is not a precise science and the professional judgment of the principal assessor is central to the process, particularly in the early years of a qualification".

The panels are responsible for setting the minimum mark needed to gain a grade C in each course. They also decide on "grade boundaries", which are the minimum marks required for grades A and B. The intention is that the pass mark at grade C would be 50 per cent, with a boundary of 70 per cent to gain a grade A. But these will be changed if examinations prove to be more or less demanding.

The SQA emphasises that there is no fixed number of passes which it expects to see each year. "But if the examination presented a similar challenge and was of identical difficulty to the previous year, then the same pass mark and grade boundaries should apply," it states.

Its paper continues: "If the examination is found to be easier or harder than usual, adjustments will have to be made to ensure that standards are maintained and that candidates are not rewarded or penalised for the fact that they happened to sit in a particular year. These adjustments will be reflected in the pass mark."

Panels must also take account of the abilities of the year group. If these have risen or fallen, the "pass rate", the percentage of candidates achieving a pass, will be adjusted. "To do otherwise would be unfair either to the present year's candidates or to those of previous years," the SQA says. Among the factors considered are:

* Changes in the examination papers, involving matters such as the "accessibility of language".

* Differences in the standard of marking or how the marking was carried out.

* Feedback from markers and examiners on question papers.

* Noticeable changes in the performance of candidates or changes in the stages at which pupils were presented ( S3 groups taking Intermediate 1, for example).

* Information on the candidate population and estimates from teachers of how candidates are likely to perform.

* Statistical evidence, including pass marks and grade distributions for the previous three years, and "national ratings" which reveal how difficult or easy the examination has been relative to other examinations at the same level.

It is the job of the principal assessor to propose the pass mark boundary, once the evidence has been digested. "If this is significantly different from 50 per cent, or outwith the range expected from previous years, there should be an explanation, as there should if the proposed grade boundary conflicts with any of the earlier evidence," the SQA states.

It concludes that "the meticulousness and thoroughness of pass mark meetings demonstrate the importance placed on the maintenance of standards."

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