Achieving a perfect grades system after cancellation of this year’s exams would have been near impossible, according to the education expert who reviewed it.
However, Professor Mark Priestley concluded that different decisions could have at least in part avoided the controversy in August when the Scottish Qualifications Authority moderated more than 124,000 pupil grades down from teacher estimates.
He said trust among teachers and young people in the SQA had been eroded and in some cases relations between young people and their teachers were damaged as a result.
Findings of Prof Priestley’s team of researchers at Stirling University were published as National 5 exams for 2021 were cancelled on Wednesday, in an attempt to reduce the risk to Higher and Advanced exams going ahead next May.
Several days after results were issued on August 4, the Scottish Government apologised to young people and reverted to grades issued by teachers where they were higher.
Those at schools in more deprived areas were more likely to have been marked down by the system adopted by the SQA, owing to it taking into account historical data from schools.
As his review was published, Prof Priestley said: “This year presented an unprecedented challenge and the SQA, the government, local authorities and schools, faced an extremely difficult set of circumstances, with no easy solutions.
“While, with hindsight, we acknowledge that it would have been a near impossible task to adopt a perfectly working system that would have pleased everyone, it is vitally important we look back and learn so we can be prepared for the future and avoid a similar predicament in 2021.”
His report concluded that the government, SQA, local authorities and schools faced “extremely difficult” circumstances with no easy solutions and that all parties involved “acted with integrity, with the best interests of students in mind”.
Generation of grade estimates had been subject to variation, it said, which impacted on reliability and consistency of assessment at that stage.
However, the review said the statistical approach to moderation could have been more transparent earlier and had led to anomalies in grade adjustment.
It also acknowledged widespread criticism of the SQA for a “perceived lack of transparency and a failure to engage” with stakeholders in developing solutions.
The appeals process, it said, “paid insufficient attention to the severe impact” on students who had to use it.
Despite repeated warnings that the process could impact on those in schools in more deprived areas, the review also found that the equalities implications seem to have been “under-emphasised” by both the government and SQA until late in the process.
As a result of the process, the review found trust and confidence among teachers and young people in the SQA had been eroded and relations damaged in some cases between teachers and young people.
“With the benefit of hindsight”, it concluded that “despite the extremely difficult environment for decision-making, there are points in the process where different decisions may have led to better outcomes and at least partially avoided the controversy that ensued in August 2020”.
Among its recommendations were the suspension of the National 5 exams diet in 2021, with qualifications awarded on estimates from validated assessments.
It also recommends a review of the appeals system and independent research into the certification model used for 2020, with full access to anonymised attainment data and statistical algorithms for moderation.
Addressing the findings in the Scottish Parliament, Education Secretary John Swinney said: “I would like to thank Professor Priestley and his team at the University of Stirling for their excellent work and the pace at which they have completed it.
“Covid-19 continues to pose a risk of further disruption during the current academic year and, for that reason, I have found the clear recommendations made by Professor Priestley to be of great assistance to me in approaching the awarding of academic awards in the coming year.”
Following Mr Swinney’s announcement on the 2021 exams, SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson, Scotland’s chief examining officer, said: “The Deputy First Minister’s statement draws on the Priestley review, which reflects on awarding in 2020.
“We will duly reflect and consider the review findings and will be responding to the Scottish Government on next steps shortly.
“I give you my assurance that SQA is committed to listening and being responsive to the needs of schools, colleges, stakeholders, learners and parents/carers and will play its full part in delivering the measures outlined by the Deputy First Minister.”
She also said the SQA published broad guidance on Wednesday on how teachers should gather evidence and make estimates, accompanied by and SQA Academy course. Subject specific guidance will follow after the October holiday, she said.