SQA chief defends ‘difficult’ Higher Maths exam

The Higher Maths paper left pupils 'in tears' afterwards because it was too hard. Picture: PA
The Higher Maths paper left pupils 'in tears' afterwards because it was too hard. Picture: PA
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THE head of Scotland’s national exams body has said this year’s Higher maths “did its job” - despite pupils being left “in tears” afterwards because it was too hard.

Dr Janet Brown of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) admitted the exam was more difficult than expected but insisted it was a “robust” and in line with school coursework.

The exams supremo faced a grilling from MSPs on Holyrood’s education committee who told her teachers had led the outcry over this year’s Higher maths.

Labour MSP John Pentland said there had been “much controversy” around the grade bands.

“I’m talking about Higher maths here which was so hard and so unlike the sample paper that it actually left pupils in tears,” he said.

It was so hard that the pass mark was lowered to 34 per cent.

Dr Brown said: “The new Higher maths we identified as being harder than anticipated.

“As we went through and looked at the way that the question papers had performed - there were two question papers, paper one and paper two - it was very obvious that they had been of a standard which was over and above what we had anticipated.”

The grade “boundaries” - the marks needed for an A, B or C - were adjusted to account for how hard it was, she added.

“We were also able to understand that it had actually done its job in terms of differentiating between candidates who were able to perform very well and other candidates which were able to secure a pass,” she added.

“That allowed us to adjust the grade boundaries to make the qualification a robust qualification and to allow us to give the candidates the grades that they required.”

The exam prompted widespread anger among parents and pupils. Among the online petitions lodged at the time was one entitled “Explain why they set the Higher maths exam to an impossible level”.

Exams chiefs have examined the concerns, Dr Brown added.

“We will review the level of difficulty, the level of challenge and the coverage of the coursework associated with that particular assessment and will make changes associated with that.

“We’ve done that with the new Higher maths and are confident we are going to see a paper that is on-standard next year.”

But Dr Brown’s evidence came under fire from opposition parties.

Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: “The SQA’s evidence today shows that they still don’t get it when it comes to making amends for the botched new Higher maths exam.

“We’ve known all along that the exam was far too hard, so they’ve told the pupils affected nothing new. I’ve had parents and pupils from across Scotland contact me regarding this fiasco, as I know the SQA have, and they will find no comfort in hearing exam chiefs say that the exam ‘did its job’.”