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Higher maths exam more difficult than intended, SQA says

Published 04/08/2015

Almost 143,000 students are receiving their exam results
Almost 143,000 students are receiving their exam results

The new Higher maths exam sat by pupils in Scotland this year was "more demanding than intended", the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has said.

Almost 143,000 students are receiving their exam results today after sitting the new Highers for the first year and National 4 and 5 qualifications for the second year.

The new qualifications were brought in as part of the Curriculum for Excellence reforms.

Pupils were also able to sit exams in existing Access, Intermediates and Highers which were "dual-run" for 2015 alongside the new qualifications.

Many students had complained that the new maths exam was more difficult than they had expected, with the SQA stating that its marking process had taken this into account.

A total of 10,854 pupils sat the existing Higher maths while 10,220 sat the new Higher m aths.

The attainment rates were 73.1% and 70.8% respectively, similar to that of previous years.

Dr Janet Brown, SQA's chief executive and Scotland's chief examining officer, said: "As in every year, we carry out a review of assessments to ensure candidates have been able to display their skills, knowledge and understanding.

"If required, grade boundaries are adjusted to take account of any assessments that were easier or more demanding than intended to ensure all candidates received the grades they deserved."

SQA figures show that there were a record 156,000 Higher passes this year, up 5.5% on 2014.

Overall, a total of 107,295 pupils sat the new Highers, with a pass rate of 79.2%. A further 92,555 pupils sat the existing Highers, recording a pass rate of 76.7%, slightly down on the 2014 pass rate of 77.1%.

Higher English passes were up 17.7% to 27,902 and Higher modern languages passes increased by 15.2% to 7,419.

The pass rate for the National 4 was 93.3%, with 114,173 passes, while pupils achieved 229,870 passes at National 5 level, resulting in a success rate of 79.8%.

Advanced Higher passes increased by 4% to a record level of 18,899, with pass rate of 80.9%.

Education Secretary Angela Constance said: "This is another strong performance by Scotland's young people.

"They have worked hard and I congratulate each and every one of them, as well as the families and carers and teachers and lecturers who have provided support.

"Scotland has seen record numbers of Higher and Advanced Higher passes. Students are performing particularly well in English and in modern languages.

"Despite concerns about the new Higher Maths exam, it's clear that the system worked, that candidates have been treated fairly and that standards have been maintained."

Scottish Labour education spokesman Iain Gray said: "It is encouraging to see record numbers of exams passed and congratulations are due to all those young people whose hard work has paid off.

"We should also acknowledge that teachers have delivered under significant workload pressure and an exam system in flux.

"The concerns of teachers still need to be be addressed by SNP ministers, and they must do that soon."

Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman Liz Smith said: "While it is important to congratulate all those pupils and teachers who have worked so hard to obtain their results, the Scottish Government must not lose sight of the fact that there is still a significant attainment gap between pupils from poorer and wealthier backgrounds."

Ms Constance visited pupils at Craigmount High School, in Edinburgh, as they opened their results envelopes on Tuesday morning.

She said this year's maths exam was "unusually hard" but insisted there are no "easy years" and that this year's pupils have not been put at an unfair disadvantage.

She told the Press Association: "Scotland's young people have done very well and I want to congratulate each and every one of them, and also their parents, carers and teachers.

"The SQA for every exam every year have well established processes that ensure that standards are maintained and that no young person is disadvantaged.

"There are safeguards in place to ensure young people get the results that they rightly deserve.

"The SQA have already said that the new higher maths exam was indeed unusually hard, but we should be reassured that there are well established processes, that have checks and balances that test the performance of any exam in any year in any subject, to ensure that it is both fair as well as robust."

Pupils at Craigmount High School took an exam compiled under the old higher model, but Ms Constance insists they and others like them were not given an unfair advantage.

"We left it entirely to the discretion of schools and teachers as to which higher young people sat, whether it was the existing higher or the new higher," she said.

"Overall, 54% of pupils sat the new highers but that varied from area to area and subject to subject.

"Young people will not be disadvantaged by the higher that they sat, whether it is the existing or the new one."

She added: "If a young person in a particular exam in previous years would have been expected to receive an A, B or C, we have to ensure that that young person who was sitting the exam this year would get the same grade.

"There are no 'easy years'. Every year, highers are the gold standard qualification and all highers are demanding exams to sit.

"The purpose of SQA checks and balances is not make an exam easier or harder, it's to test the performance of that exam to maintain standards and to ensure that no young person is disadvantaged because the exam paper has been more or less challenging than the norm."

Ms Constance has urged young people study the jobs market and make informed choices about their careers, with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) professions and languages a major focus for the SNP's programme for government.

Tom Rae, head teacher at Craigmount High School, said "huge workload pressures" in some schools meant they could not adapt to the new Higher as quickly as other schools.

"We're really pleased with the results this year, with particular highlights including our fourth year which has seen significant improvements and the sixth year which has had fantastic advanced Higher results," he told the Press Association.

"Our students did the old Higher and the controversy related to the new Higher.

"The reason for the two different systems was because local authorities adopted a more flexible approach to meet local circumstances.

"For example, some schools maybe had a faculty with a high staff turnover, and given the pace of curricular development and assessment pressure it would have been unfair to ask that department to do that.

"We're running a dual system at the moment and this will be the last year of that. During that time there was a recognition that there were huge workload pressures and differences in schools, with differences in support from the SQA in different subjects.

"There had to be acknowledgement that, to be fair to students, we had to approach things in a more flexible way.

"Teachers and students knew through social media and discussion that there was something more difficult with the new Higher maths.

"The SQA has acknowledged that but, as always happens, they have adjusted the grade values to ensure that students don't lose out as a result."

Fifth year pupil Susie Bradley got six As in her exams, and is embarking on a gap year to Guyana in South America to teach maths and science.

She said: "We took the old maths Higher. It was okay, but there were some difficult questions.

"It think I just about got an A, but I don't know how that happened because I didn't turn over the page at the end of the maths exam, so I accidentally missed out some questions."

Sixth year pupil Duncan Bowyer got four As, three at advanced higher level and one at higher level, and is going to St Andrews University to study chemistry.

He said: "I might go on to do a PhD, but I want to stay on in chemistry. I don't have a specialism yet but that's what university is for, to find out one I like the most.

"I did the advance higher exam, which I think was harder than the higher one. I did look at the controversial one, but I think mine was still harder."

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