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Are Scotland's exams getting easier to pass?

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland education correspondent

image captionThe Scottish Qualifications Authority has insisted that all exam candidates are "treated fairly"

Pass rates are at a record level - but the question is..... are exams getting easier?

It can be hard to criticise the exam system when the results are announced for fear of undermining the achievements of students who've worked hard, but as anyone who has written an essay for a Higher exam will be aware, there are a number of aspects to this question to considered.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has to ensure that standards in exams are consistent from year to year.

Exam papers are carefully tested beforehand.

In a subject like Higher Maths, there would normally be a number of questions of varying degrees of difficulty - the more demanding ones are designed to identify the candidates who might be awarded an A or a B.

If the marked papers suggested an exam this year had been set at too easy or too hard a level, the boundaries for grades would be raised or lowered to take account of this.

However, some argue teachers are gradually becoming more adept at coaching students to pass exams which might have become more predictable if not necessarily easier.

More positively it's also argued that more candidates are sitting exams at the most appropriate level for them - reducing the risk of failing.

For instance, someone who may have struggled with the straight leap from Standard Grade to Higher might successfully study for an Intermediate 2 first.

Some contend the economic difficulties of recent years may also have helped focus the minds of some young people on their exams and securing qualifications.

A distinct aspect of the question is whether today's students are sitting exams as tough as those which confronted their parents or even grandparents.

The syllabus for subjects and the formats of individual exams have been revised over time.

Difficult subjects

In the case of maths, it's been argued that some of the most challenging parts of the syllabus 40 years ago are now found in the Advanced Higher - studied by candidates who have already gained a Higher.

But it could also be argued that by creaming off the most demanding parts of a difficult subject, other parts of the course may be less daunting for some students while those with the potential to excel still get the chance to study the hardest parts of the subject later on.

Susan Walsh, principal of Glasgow Clyde College, SQA board member and independent chair of SQA's Qualifications Committee, said: "SQA takes its responsibility to uphold the standards of Scottish qualifications very seriously.

image captionStudents will find out their results via text, email or post

"It has very robust processes and a thoroughly professional approach to its role as the independent guardian of the high quality and standards expected of Scottish qualifications.

"SQA is also very thorough in its work to ensure standards are monitored over time, to ensure that candidates are treated fairly across the years.

"Everything I have seen in my dealings with SQA has reaffirmed my view that the standards and quality of Scottish qualifications are being protected rigorously, professionally and independently."

Paul Thomson, rector of Jordanhill School, an SQA board member and chair of SQA's advisory council, added: "I am always impressed and reassured by the way in which SQA works with schools and colleges across Scotland in the very best interests of young people of all abilities.

"This ensures they have the opportunity to gain appropriate, robust and relevant qualifications to take each one of them on to the next stage of their personal learner journey.

"Qualifications are delivered professionally, within a system which ensures high standards are maintained across the years.

"SQA has robust quality assurance systems in place so that all candidates are treated fairly and can be sure they will get the same grade as a candidate who performed at the same level in previous years."

More on this story

  • SQA defends Higher Maths exam labelled as 'easiest ever'