‘Credible’ exam moderation process branded a ‘train wreck’

Although pass rates were up, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) downgraded 124,564 results.

The Scottish Government has defended the exam results moderation process following criticism it’s been a “train wreck”.

On Tuesday, around 138,000 school pupils will receive the results of their National, Higher and Advanced Higher courses after an exam-free year.

Results published by the Scottish Government showed that while pass rates were up and three out of four grade estimates were not adjusted, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) downgraded 124,564 results – 93.1% of all the moderated grades.

Around 133,000 entries were adjusted from the initial estimate, with only 6.9% adjusted up.

The National 5 pass rate was 81.1%, the Higher pass rate was 78.9%, and the Advanced Higher pass rate was 84.9%

The pass rates have risen from 78.2%, 74.8% and 79.4% respectively.

Results were worked out using estimates made by teachers based on the pupil’s performance over the school year. However, the national moderation system meant that many students received lower grades than originally estimated.

SQA figures also showed that the Higher pass rate for pupils from the most deprived backgrounds was reduced by 15.2 percentage points, compared to only 6.9 percentage points for the wealthiest pupils.

Education secretary John Swinney said without the moderation, the pass rates compared to 2019 would have been “an annual change never been seen in Scottish exam results”.

At the Scottish Government’s daily coronavirus briefing, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stated the attainment gap has in fact narrowed this year and that the moderation system was “credible”.

She explained the moderation process was not causing the attainment gap, and instead had it not been in place, she would have been announcing that 85% of young people in the most deprived areas had passed Highers this year compared to around 65% last year.

The First Minister said if that were the case, it would have been questioned and seen as “not credible”.

Instead this year, around 70% of young people from the most deprived areas have passed their Highers.

She said: “I understand how difficult it will be for any young person out there, whatever their background, if the result they had been given today is lower than they were expecting based on the estimate that was put forward.

“And that is why the availability of the appeals is so important.

“Every young person that’s in that position will have the opportunity to appeal, and if there has been a misjudgement made there, the opportunity to have that rectified.”

She added: “Overall, that moderation, I think, is necessary to make sure we have a credible – and that’s important for young people – system of results.

“For every individual young person, that ability to appeal and test that is really, really important.”

In response, opposition politicians branded the moderation process as a “train wreck” and “disturbing”.

Beatrice Wishart MSP, the education spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, congratulated all those awaiting their results, but stated: “While some pupils will be rightly celebrating, many more will be deeply disappointed with how the SQA have handled things. 

“We are already seeing pupils, teachers and in some cases, entire classes, complaining that their grades have been dropped dramatically, in many cases turning passes into fails.

“In particular the decision by the SQA to hold back their moderation guidelines until results day itself has meant months have been lost in which these guidelines could be scrutinised, understood and if necessary, improved. 

“These are difficult times for any organisation but the SQA’s communication with parents, pupils and teachers has been a train wreck that could have been easily avoided.

“What’s more, the reliance on a school’s past performance as a guide to moderating results will embed the attainment gap and hurt bright pupils from disadvantaged schools. It appears that the system has been reverse-engineered to get the ‘right results’.

“Everyone will now be hoping that the appeals process is sufficiently robust to handle the volume of pupils who will now wish to challenge their results.”

The Scottish Conservatives said the Scottish Government should have “trusted” the teachers’ estimates as they are “far better placed than an SQA moderator to give an accurate estimation of the grade their pupils deserve”.

Ross Greer, the education spokesperson for the Scottish Greens, also branded the grading system “disturbing and grossly unequal”.

The MSP is now calling for the exams authority to appear before the Scottish Parliament.

He said: “Teachers and pupils should not hesitate to appeal these huge changes from the grades they submitted. 

“I have been contacted by senior staff at schools who have seen over 90% of their Higher and Advanced Higher grades changed, almost all lowered and in every one of these cases the school has been in a deprived community. 

“How can the SQA say the system is based on teacher judgement when in some schools they have ignored almost every professional judgement that teachers have made?

“Pupils are having their futures disadvantaged and it seems to be for no other reason than the school they go to. This is frankly disturbing and grossly unequal.” 

Help and support

  • Skills Development Scotland’s exam results helpline: 0808 100 8000
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