SQA denies 'manipulation of exam result figures' as attainment gap widens and impacts poorer pupils

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has said there was ‘no statistical manipulation’ of exam result figures this year as political parties criticise the government for ‘penalising the poor’ as the attainment gap widens.

Fiona Robertson, CEO of the SQA, said it was important to treat this year’s learners “fairly” whilst maintaining the "standards and credibility” of qualifications.

Despite a widening attainment gap between the most and least deprived students in Scotland this year, Ms Robertson said the body has seen “one of the strongest sets of results in an exam year”.

The 2022 exam results statistics revealed the percentage point difference between A-C attainment in least and most deprived areas at Higher level has increased to 15 per cent this year.

The Scottish Qualification Authority (SQA) said there was ‘no statistical manipulation’ of exam result figures this year. Jane Barlow/PA Wire

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Under teacher-marked assessments in 2021, this stood at 7.8 per cent while in 2019, the last time there were national external exams, it was 16.9 per cent.

For pupils in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of Scotland, the Higher pass rate was 70.2per cent this year, down from 83.2 per cent last year.

Overall, the pass rate for pupils sitting exams in Scotland dropped from the levels seen in the two years when they were affected by Covid pandemic measures.

At Higher level, the number of pupils getting an A to C pass was 78.9%, down from 87.3% last year.

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At a press briefing on Tuesday, Ms Robertson said comparisons to previous years needed to be treated “with caution” due to different assessment approaches over the last few years.

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"While it has been a return to exams, it has not been a normal year,” Ms Robertson said, "Our job is to have a fair assessment system and that’s what we’ve done.

"As a rewarding body, we’ve done all that we can to address disruption to learning but obviously what is really important is the learning and teaching and support the Government has in place.”

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Ms Robertson added: "There’s no alternative set of results, these are the results.”

Robert Quinn, Head of Service at SQA, said: “Candidates results today are based on their own individual endeavours. There’s no other statistical manipulation. It is based on that demonstrated evidence.”

Mr Quinn added the assessments this year have “landed well” in terms of a “fair test” of candidate ability.

Denying there was a request from the Scottish Government on where the pass rate should lie for this year, Ms Robertson said: "We look at a range of information and in a normal year we are looking at how the assessment has performed and using that information to inform fair awarding decisions.

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"For most courses, we lowered the pass mark at which a young person could get a C grade.”

However, in 2022, students dealing with a pandemic had to do better than those in pre-pandemic year 2019 to get an A in Higher English. The grade boundary in 2019 for an A was 67 per cent versus 68 per cent this year.

The SQA said a generous approach was taken with modifications made to papers.

For example, in National 5 English, pupils were given advanced sight of the text included the exam months ahead of the exam.

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The number of those accessing the exceptional circumstance service is “about the same as usual”, according to the authority, with around 4,000 student entries.

Political parties have criticised the Scottish Government for “knowingly and purposefully penalising the poorest young people” as the attainment gap increases.

Michael Marra, Scottish Labour education spokesperson, said: “The achievements of our young people are masking system-wide problems.

“These results are on a reduced curriculum - yet further evidence of the significant loss of learning and knowledge across Scotland’s education system.

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“It is astonishing that the SNP government has no plan whatsoever to make up for these losses - nor any interest in doing the work to assess the impact. This has very real impact for colleges, universities, businesses and individuals building a career, and, of course, for the country as a whole.

“The SNP government has reverted to a system that penalises the poorest young people in Scotland. They have done so knowingly, purposefully and – worst of all – without any plan to change the situation.

"This SNP administration has dramatically cut funding to the poorest communities in Scotland and we are years away from any substantive reform - They have no plan, no leadership and their continued failings in this work are a rolling national scandal.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats said the Scottish Government has conducted “desperate spinning” over the gap as they said the government has little chance of closing it by their target year of 2026 set out in the 2016 Programme for Government.

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Willie Rennie, education spokesperson for the party, said: "Our students deserve more from their Scottish Government than desperate spinning about the closure of the poverty related attainment gap.

"At best the gap is stagnant, at worst it has widened depending on which year is used as a comparison. The SNP promised the gap would close by 2026 and these results show that the government have little chance of achieving their number one priority.

“Over the coming weeks we will be keeping an eye on how appeals, university entries and exam reform are being handled. These results show the need for urgent reform not yet more sloth-like dithering."

Shirely-Anne Somerville, education secretary, said: "While the results show the gap between attainment levels in the least and most deprived areas has narrowed from the 2019 level, we know that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted learners from more disadvantaged backgrounds. We are determined to accelerate the progress that has been made and we are investing a record £1 billion in the Scottish Attainment Challenge during this parliamentary term.

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“Some learners may not be receiving the results they were hoping for today. This year there is a free, direct appeals service for those whose National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher awarded grade is less than the estimate submitted by their school or college. There is also plenty of help available on next steps, including from the Skills Development Scotland Results Helpline.”

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