SQA Exam Results: All you need to know about the way exams are marked and graded in Scotland
The waiting is almost over for thousands of school pupils and college students who will receive their exam results on Tuesday.
For many, the grades they get in the post, or by text or email, will shape their next steps in life, such as moving into further or higher education, or the world of training or work.
Overall attainment trends and gaps will also be studied by academics and politicians, as the system continues to recover from unprecedented disruption during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The row ultimately led to a decision to scrap the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and overhaul the nation’s exams, although neither promise has been enacted yet.
Ahead of the big day, The Scotsman has taken a look at how Scotland’s exams have been marked this year, as well as what is likely to emerge on Tuesday and beyond.
Who will be receiving their SQA exam results on Tuesday?
The exams were taken by almost 130,000 learners in 500 schools, colleges and training providers.
These learners completed more than 2 million exam papers and more than 200,000 items of coursework.
It includes those who sat Nationals, Highers, and Advanced Highers, as well as a wide of vocational courses, including Awards, National Certificates, National Progression Awards and Skills for Work Awards.
Who marks the exam papers?
There are 130 principal assessors, and around 6,500 markers, who are experienced teachers and lecturers from across Scotland.
Training and guidance is provided to markers before they start the process. They are all part of small teams with a team leader, who works with the markers to ensure consistency, and to monitor standards.
Marks achieved by each candidate on their exam and other assessments, such as coursework, are then added together to give a total mark.
What are grade boundaries?
After marking for a course is completed, and a total mark allocated to each candidate, then grading takes place.
A separate grade boundary meeting is scheduled for every course, with more than 140 of these meetings being held over five weeks this year.
Grade boundaries have always been used by the SQA and are different depending on the subject.
The boundaries essentially set the minimum marks needed to get an A, B C or D grade.
They can be moved to ensure assessments have worked as planned and that standards are consistent from one year to the next.
Who decides the grade boundaries?
Grade boundary meetings involve top officials at the SQA, as well as each subject’s senior exam team, including the principal assessor, who is an experienced subject specialist and course teacher or lecturer in charge of of overseeing assessments and marking.
They discuss whether the course assessment performed as expected.
Grade boundary meetings are not provided with any information that identifies individual learners, schools, colleges, training providers, or local authorities.
Historic performance at an individual school, college or local authority is not used to determine grades.
However, the meetings do consider how learners performed in assessments, as well as teacher estimates, and feedback from markers and principal assessors.
Is the Covid-19 pandemic still having an impact?
The pandemic lockdowns caused huge disruption to the education of younger generations and have been blamed for a range of ongoing issues in schools, including poor attendance and worsening behaviour.
The SQA has said it has taken a “sensitive approach” to grading this year in recognition of the challenges learners have continued to face.
Officials describe their approach as offering an “extra layer of protection”.
The exams body has been unwilling to go into any detail about what this has entailed, however, but said it will be able to explain its approach further after the results have been released.
It is part of a wider “package of support” in recognition of the fall-out from the pandemic.
Other measures include keeping in place course modifications from the previous year.
The modifications vary from subject to subject, and can include removing some coursework, providing more choice to learners, or removing a specific topic from a course.
There is an “Exam Exceptional Circumstances Consideration Service”, aimed at young people who could not sit exams due to personal circumstances such as illness or bereavement. A free appeals service is also on offer.
What trends will politicians, academics and the media be looking for on Results Day?
Much focus will be on the overall pass rate. Last year, at Higher level, the number of pupils getting an A to C pass was 78.9%, down from 87.3% in the previous year, but above the pre-Covid 2019 rate of 74.8%.
Pass rates for National 5 and Advanced Highers followed a similar pattern.
There could be questions over whether the support and special arrangements offered to pupils impacted by Covid disruptions was sufficient or appropriate.
The poverty-related attainment gap – the difference between pass rates for pupils from the most and least deprived areas – will also be discussed.
At Higher level, the gap was 16.9 percentage points in 2019, before falling to 7.8 points in 2021, but rising back to 15 last year.
Will the same model be used for future exams in Scotland?
Big changes are on the cards for Scottish exams in the future.
The SQA faces a decision over whether to continue to take account of the impact of the pandemic on pupils.
The authority itself is also due to be dismantled and replaced with a new body, although that process was recently delayed.
At the same time, a recent review proposed ending school exams for S4 pupils and introducing a new Scottish Diploma of Achievement.
However, the Scottish Government is still to make a final decision on the model and timetable for the reforms.
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