‘Pupils will pay the price’ under new system for awarding grades, claims professor

The Scottish Government’s system for awarding grades to school pupils this year is “a less defensible” version of the algorithm used last summer, says a leading education academic.

Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh, has accused those in charge of education of “dishonesty” and warned that pupils and teachers are “the people who will pay the price”.

The cancellation of the 2021 exam diet has led to the introduction of an alternative certification model (ACM) for awarding grades to young people. Critics argued this has resulted in students facing “exams by stealth“.

Concerns are now being raised over the way teachers’ proposed grades are being compared to historic attainment data at school and council levels.

Despite assurances from the Scottish Government that 2021 results would be based purely on teachers’ professional judgements, councils across the country have put in place a system to compare proposed results this year with grades from previous years. 

However, these comparisons exclude 2020 data when pass rates improved. In 2019 pass rates for Highers were 75 percent and in 2020 they jumped to 89 per cent.

According to Paterson, excluding 2020 results from the comparison process “must mean that the SQA is encouraging teachers to mark more harshly than happened last year”.

He said the current approach is “even more indefensible” than the system used in 2020. “The claim by government ministers that what is happening this year is fundamentally different from what happened last year is either disingenuous, or based on a failure to understand what an algorithm is,” added Paterson.

“The algorithm was no more than an attempt to codify the kinds of rules which are also being imposed on teachers this year. The local authorities are using school-attainment statistics in the same way as the algorithm did.

The claim by government ministers that what is happening this year is fundamentally different from what happened last year is either disingenuous, or based on a failure to understand what an algorithm is

Professor Lindsay Paterson of Edinburgh University

Paterson continued: “The situation is not normal, and pretending that it is normal is dishonest. Unfortunately, the people who will pay the price for the dishonesty will be students, above all, but also teachers, who are being forced to do things that they must know are simply wrong.”

At the beginning of June a report by Education Scotland confirmed that such comparisons are taking place in the majority of councils across Scotland.

Some councils have released information in response to freedom of information requests made by The Ferret confirming that teachers’ grades will be compared to past attainment data.

In Orkney schools will “use previous results data sets subject by subject and by whole school (excluding 2020 data) to ensure that all judgements are aligned within expectations”, the council’s response said.

All schools in Angus will “sense check” results against 2016-2019 data comparing results to “investigate any anomalous provisional grades and make adjustments if required”.

Meanwhile in the Borders, a “statement of confidence” to be signed by teachers states that 2021 results will be “compared with the attainment data from previous cohorts on a subject by subject basis, with the exception of the 2020 data” which – following a review meeting – will see “adjustments made as appropriate”.

One principal teacher from a Glasgow school – who asked to remain anonymous – told The Ferret they were being forced to “construct a rationale” to defend results that did not match attainment patterns from previous years.

They said: “Before we do this, we have been reminded of our subject and school’s historic data. Again, the onus is on us to make the numbers look ‘right’ – kids from deprived areas must not attain too many As or else it makes a mockery of the whole education system.”

They claimed their head teacher had been “supportive” and had not pressured them to change grades, but added: “I feel the panic is there and pressure from our local authority is there to make the numbers fit a pattern based on historic data. I thought the algorithm was dead.”

The SQA said the use of historical data for “quality assurance” is needed “to ensure results are fair and credible.”

The SQA has put in place a system that protects itself and places all the burden and responsibility on the teachers and the schools

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association

“This ACM (alternative certification model), including the role of quality assurance in the model, was agreed by the NQ2021 group which contains representatives from every part of the Scottish education system, including teachers,” a spokesperson for the SQA said.

“Any attempts to knowingly misrepresent the process risk causing unnecessary distress to learners at an already difficult time when we should all be working to support them.”

The concerns have been raised as a long-awaited review of Scotland’s school curriculum was published.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report claims there is a “misalignment” between the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and the narrow focus on exams in later years.

It found that Scotland could identify ways of assessing pupils that could be used in senior phase, such as continuous assessment.

Meanwhile Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA), said this year’s system of grading – intended to “ensure school results are in keeping with previous years, but not 2020” – remained problematic.

“The SQA has put in place a system that protects itself and places all the burden and responsibility on the teachers and the schools,” he added.

“If it goes wrong it will be the teachers that failed the pupils. The SQA will ‘wash its hands’ and say that it put the process in place but it was the teachers who were responsible.”

Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer claimed the SQA was “more interested in protecting the status quo than supporting young people and their teachers”.

He added: “Government claims that this year’s assessments are based on teacher judgement are blatantly untrue.  This system simply repeats last year’s disastrous flaws by stealth, whilst shifting the blame onto classroom teachers.

“Their professional judgement certainly isn’t being respected when they are being pressured to lower individual pupils’ grades based on historic data.”

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Michael Marra said: “This is a deeply disturbing development and shows, once more, that the SQA is an organisation in crisis. The exclusion of 2020 data risks forcing grades down and casting doubt on the achievements of pupils and the judgement of teachers last year.

“It is clear that grades for our children are being rationed on the basis of past results. The exclusion of last year’s data is further evidence that the SQA see the performance of our young people as an anomaly, an outlier to be corrected rather than as achievements to be celebrated.

“We need an appeals process with a policy of no detriment and recourse for pupils who have endured exceptional circumstances.”

Teachers will assess what an individual learner’s provisional grade will be based on their demonstrated attainment

A Scottish Government spokesperson

A Scottish Government spokesperson said the use of historical school data is a normal part of the “quality assurance process” and is “designed to help support the best outcomes for our young people.”

They said there is “no place in the ACM for changing a grade because of their school’s past performance, either at a school, council or SQA level.”

“Teachers will assess what an individual learner’s provisional grade will be based on their demonstrated attainment,” the spokesperson said.

“We will treat very seriously any concerns raised about the alternative certification model (ACM) process not being correctly followed. Education Scotland is working with local authorities to gather additional reassurance that the ACM is being implemented in accordance with the national guidance.

“Once the provisional grades have been submitted to the SQA, they will not be changed because of any school’s past performance.”

Last year, the use of an algorithm to alter teachers’ judgements led to a public outcry when it became clear pupils from the poorest parts of Scotland were significantly more likely to have their results downgraded. 

Then education secretary John Swinney was ultimately forced to abandon the system and apologise in the Scottish Parliament.

Photo thanks to iStock and Monkeybusinessimages

Good journalism changes things

The Ferret was established in 2015 with a mission to publish fearless, high quality journalism.

Since then thousands of people have joined us. We hope you will too.

We're a cooperative with places reserved for both our writers and subscribers on the board.

We're independently regulated, and work hard to keep our overheads down. This means that all the money we get from our subscribers is invested directly in original public interest news.

We're avowedly non-partisan so we can treat everyone fairly. We don't publish click bait and we don't do favours for political parties or powerful vested interests. We do help to change things.

Or see your other subscription options.

Got a story idea?

Tell us what you'd like us to write about next and vote up the best ideas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Hi! You can login using the form below.
Not registered yet?
Having trouble logging in? Try here.