SQA boss admits new Higher maths exam was 'too hard'
- 22 September 2015
- From the section Scotland politics
The Scottish Qualifications Authority's chief executive has told MSPs at Holyrood that this year's Higher maths test was "too hard".
Janet Brown made the admission during an evidence session to members of the education committee.
Candidates sitting the new-look exam needed just 34% to pass and 60% for an A Grade.
Dr Brown said she was confident lessons would be learned before school pupils sit their Higher maths next year.
Each year the SQA reviews what happened in each subject - what went well and what did not - and then issues guidance to teachers.
New-look Highers started to be phased in last year to tie them in better with the qualification that replaced Standard Grades and the wider changes to education through Curriculum for Excellence.
After the Higher maths exam in May, students took to social media to complain the exam was far harder than the one they had expected.
When the results were released in August, it emerged the pass mark had been lowered to 34%.
The pass mark for those students who sat the old Higher exam this year was 43%. That figure was also unusually low.
Grade boundaries and pass marks are always adjusted to ensure consistency from year to year as exams, inevitably, can prove easier or harder than anticipated.
It is relatively uncommon for the pass mark to be precisely 50%.
Committee members wanted to know why the exam was so hard it "left some pupils in tears".
Dr Brown said the paper had been written along the same guidelines as exemplar and specimen papers, and the "structure and nature of questions within it was part of the course and was explained to teachers".
But, she added, it became "very obvious" that the exam had been "a standard which was over and above what we had anticipated".
She said grade boundary meetings, which are held every year for every subject, had allowed the SQA to take the challenge of the paper into account.
Dr Brown explained to the committee: "We identified that it was harder than we anticipated it being, but we were also able to understand that it had actually done its job in terms of differentiating between candidates who were able to perform very well and candidates who were able to achieve a pass.
"That allowed us therefore to change the grade boundaries... to make the qualification a robust qualification and to allow us to give the candidates the grades that they required."
The level of difficulty prompted anger among parents and pupils, while the boundary changes also raised concerns.
'Same degree of difficulty'
Conservative MSP Liz Smith said changes to the grade boundaries meant the pass mark for a subject such as maths was vastly different to others such as classical studies.
She said: "Parents want to know that any exams that their children are sitting have the same degree of difficulty in the way that the paper is structured and the choice within that."
Dr Brown said the SQA was working to achieve that.
One question highlighted asked candidates to calculate the time taken for a crocodile to cross a river and take down a zebra, travelling at different speeds on water and land.