Maths Higher dumbed down, says ex-chief examiner

PRESSURE is growing on education secretary Mike Russell to investigate concerns over this year’s Higher mathematics exam, amid claims the paper was dumbed down.

Claims were made that this year's Higher maths exam was easier than previous versions. Picture: PA
Claims were made that this year's Higher maths exam was easier than previous versions. Picture: PA

The criticism from Clive Chamber, a former principal examiner of maths for the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), was backed up by teachers who said the exam was not as challenging as it should have been.

Earlier this year, a number of senior examiners quit the SQA after the principal assessor for maths, who had worked for the agency since 1989, had his contract terminated following an internal dispute. This led to warnings that the replacements overseeing the marking lacked the necessary experience.

Mr Chamber, who oversaw Higher maths between 1992 and 2009, said: “I thought it was a poor-quality paper, and it was clear it had been dumbed down compared to previous years.

“This standard of paper would not have been acceptable in previous years and there were not enough testing questions for the best candidates.”

He said a typical maths exam would normally have 35 per cent of questions suitable for the best-performing pupils – those capable of achieving an A or a B. However, only around 15 per cent of questions in this year’s exam fell into that category.

Labour education spokesman Hugh Henry said it was now time for the education secretary to look into the concerns over the exam.

“These are serious allegations and they come on the back of the departure of the senior Higher maths examination team at the SQA,” he said. “Concerns were previously expressed to me that the marking regime would be altered to ensure that pass rates didn’t fall and now we have an experienced examiner saying that standards have been significantly lower and the exams have been dumbed down.

“Pupils, employers and universities need to know that standards are being maintained and quality is not being compromised. This is the latest in a series of worrying reports about the Higher maths exam. Mike Russell needs to explain to MSPs just exactly what is going on and give an assurance that there is no fiddling going on behind the scenes.”

Tory education spokeswoman Liz Smith added: “Parents have a right to full transparency on this matter. The SQA should publish how it dealt with this and what conclusions were drawn.”

Dr Gill Stewart, director of qualifications development at the SQA, said: “We are satisfied this year’s Higher maths examination was fair and balanced, and offered an appropriate degree of challenge for candidates at A, B and C level.

“The exam paper is subject to a range of quality assurance checks prior to being signed off, including vetting and scrutiny by maths practitioners independent of those who set the paper.”

A Scottish Government spokesman added: “Pupils and teachers across Scotland work hard to prepare for exams and we are proud of their achievements. SQA, who set exams independently, have provided reassurance that this year’s Higher maths exam was fair and balanced, and at the appropriate standard for Higher.”