“The problem at the heart of the statistical standardisation is that it can be simultaneously unfair to individuals, but also maintain the integrity of the system. However, if system integrity damages the life chances of individuals, then it is not much of a system.”
Professor Guy Nason of the London School of Economics’ yesterday, summing up his assessment of the Scottish Qualification Authority’s methodology for the moderation system used to adjust teacher assessments. It gets to the heart of the major debacle the SQA and Scottish Government have got themselves into: to fit the square peg of the exam system into the round hole of teacher assessment, they have used a moderation methodology which – because it is primarily based on historical attainment data – has condemned thousands of students to worse results than they deserve, simply because of the school they go to.
Education Secretary John Swinney has sought to defend the results as fair for every pupil, but how could they possibly be? One formerly straight A pupil from a deprived area who has ended up with Cs and Ds told Channel 4: “Somehow I’ve failed an exam I didn’t sit.”
Students from deprived areas were downgraded from a pass to a fail at twice the rate of those in the most affluent areas, in order to bring the teacher assessments back into line with exam averages in previous years. The Higher pass rate of the poorest fifth of pupils was reduced by 15.2 per cent between teacher assessment and SQA moderation, while it was reduced by just 6.9 per cent for the richest fifth of pupils. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said to not reduce the pass rate of deprived students by so much would not have been “credible” as teacher assessments were on average 20 per cent higher than previous years exams results and thus would have created an “almighty row” – but what does she think this has done?
The Scottish Government have taken an exam system which entrenches educational inequality and decided, because they can’t do exams this year, to cast it in stone, so that historical attainment data weighs like a nightmare on the students of this pandemic year. And of course it works the other way as well: students in better off areas who performed poorly will have had results adjusted upwards. Pupils have been reduced to statistical “tolerable ranges”, as the SQA put it.
Did no one at the Scottish Government or SQA stop to think that there may be very good reasons why teacher assessments of pupil performance induce better results among those from a deprived background than the high-stakes exam environment? Teachers know their pupils, whereas the exam system is designed generally by people from middle-class backgrounds. Surely the Scottish Government has to at least consider the possibility that there’s at least as much chance the system is at fault as it is that teachers (especially those who teach at schools in deprived areas) are?
The SQA’s moderation system has adjusted 133,000 teacher assessments all in all, a really big intervention into the national results, yet it seems to be based on no outside scrutiny of their ad-hoc system whatsoever. It was only yesterday, when the results were published, that the methodology became publicly available. If there had been scrutiny and input from education experts before now it’s surely possible a fairer system than this could have been designed. And they can’t say they weren’t warned. Numerous politicians, academics, teachers and journalists put up a flashing red warning sign over the vaguely outlined moderation plans of the SQA months ago. This was an avoidable crisis.
Now the focus will move to an appeals process that is surely set to be chaotic, and which the workload and emotional strain will fall on teachers. An anonymous teacher told education journalist James McEnaney that organising appeals for one Higher class alone could take six hours. Of course if you are in a private school with a smaller teacher-pupil ratio that problem will not be as difficult to deal with. And there’s obviously a question about whether the methodology will be the same for appeals, and if so are teachers going to be wasting their time? Those pointing to the appeals system as a route out of the inequities of the grading system are missing the point – it’s fundamentally the same system.
The great irony of all of this is that the First Minister asked to be judged on her record on education, specifically in closing the attainment gap between the poorest and wealthiest students. Superficially, the Scottish Government can point to yesterday’s results and say they show a closing in the attainment gap, but trust in the system for assessing that gap has just reached rock-bottom. What the teacher assessments suggest is a poverty-related gap in student performance which is much lower than the officially recorded attainment gap. What this debacle has revealed – and has been studiously ignored by government – is that the system itself accentuates the attainment gap.
As one anonymous teacher wrote in an article on Conter yesterday: “We had a chance this year to do it differently. The SQA could have allowed teacher estimates to genuinely be the yardstick by which young people were measured. Teachers know their pupils…Nicola Sturgeon asked a few years ago that we judge her on her record in education. Unfortunately for her, this year may well be the one for which she is remembered.”
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