The Scottish government has become embroiled in a row over the moderation of exam results disadvantaging students from poorer backgrounds as critics warned the same problem could happen in the rest of the UK.
In Scotland’s first school year without exams due to coronavirus, the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s (SQA) moderation process reduced the pass rate of the poorest Higher pupils by more than twice that of the richest.
The pass rate of pupils in the most deprived data zones was reduced by 15.2% from teacher estimates after the exam board’s intervention.
In contrast, the pass rate for pupils from the most affluent backgrounds dropped by 6.9%.
Education commentators said “systemic biasing in favour of the least deprived” was the result of basing results on a school’s previous performance, rather than an individual’s track record.
Labour’s shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray said using previous results from schools to decide grades “embeds disadvantage and the ridiculous league tables that has artificially hampered schools in more deprived areas”.
SNP MP Mhairi Black said she was “deeply concerned” with students from deprived areas seeing their results reduced at a higher rate and urged her colleagues running the Scottish Government to address the issue.
But Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that without the moderation the results would have been “unprecedented and therefore not credible”.
Barry Black, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Glasgow, told HuffPost UK that the SQA was warned about the impact on the most disadvantaged pupils by the Scottish parliament’s education committee, and that the poorest were “actually being failed by a statistical model”.
He made the point that the poorest have been downgraded from a pass to a fail over twice the rate of their most affluent peers.
He said: “It’s not being moved from an A to B, or a B to a C, it’s actually from a pass to a fail. The potential consequences of that are really quite significant for those young people. It could be the difference between a university and college entry.
“If you went to a school in a rich area, and your teacher estimated you should have an A, it’s twice as likely that A would have been kept than if you were a deprived school because the affluent school wouldn’t have been questioned as much.
“The problem is is that you’re applying system-wide statistics to individual exam results.”
He said the SQA had argued a range of evidence would be used to make the calculations but “what we see in the methodology today is actually it’s purely been based on historical school data”.
“I’ve been in politics and education for a good few years and I’ve never seen palpable anger on such a scale,” he continued.
“I think this is probably forbearing exactly what’s going to happen in England and Wales because they’re pretty similar systems. And I imagine it is going to be similar in terms of results.”
Syeda Mashaim Bukhari, 17, from St Andrew’s Academy in Glasgow, hit out at the “shocking” decision after she received her results, calling the “classist” approach “deeply flawed”.
She told HuffPost UK: “There is no justification for this, pupils have been disadvantaged simply because of the fact they live in a deprived area and pupils before them haven’t performed well.
“I think the SQA should have moderated the results based on individual performances of pupils in the past.
“This would have ensured pupils aren’t just given a huge advantage or disadvantage based on something that is completely out of their control.”
Drew Skinner, 17, who attends St Mungo’s Academy in Glasgow, said she was “disheartened after seeing people from privileged areas achieving straight As purely because they live in affluent areas”.
She told HuffPost UK of her “shock and upset” after receiving her results and “let down” by the SQA. She has another year to gain more Highers but thinks she will now have to work harder to get into university.
“I have some friends in the year above that now need to take alternative routes such as college before university because of this,” she said.
Asked about the SQA’s figures showing deprived children being affected more by the downgrading of results, Sturgeon said that without the moderation there would have been a 19.8% increase of the pass rate among the poorest fifth of pupils.
Sturgeon said: “What we want to make sure is that this year’s results have the degree of credibility that means that they are not so out of sync with previous years that people are going to look at them and say ‘they don’t make any sense’.
“As much as I would love to be in the position of standing here credibly saying that 85% of the 20% in the most deprived areas had passed Higher, given that it was 65% last year, that would raise a real credibility issue.”
She added: “Anybody who has a result, has passed a Higher or a National 5 today, can hold their head up for having a credible exam result, albeit without the actual exam.
“That’s why the methodology in the moderation system is important in order to do that so that people don’t look at incredible inflation and pass rates and say the whole system wasn’t in some way credible.”
At National 5 level, the pass rate for the poorest pupils was 74% when teachers’ estimates would have led to an 84.5% pass rate without moderation.
For the least deprived, the 92.3% estimated pass rate fell to 87.1% after the SQA’s moderation.
More than a quarter (26.2%) of grades were changed during moderation by the SQA - a total of 133,762 - while 377,308 entries were accepted unchanged.
The exam board’s criteria for moderation included the historic performance of of schools and grades were adjusted “where a centre’s estimates were outside the constraint range for that course”, according to the SQA chief examining officer Fiona Robertson
New schools without previous exam results were unchanged.
Despite the downgrading 124,564 pupils’ results - 93.1% of all the moderated grades - exam pass rates rose at every level and would have been the highest on record without the SQA downgrading some submitted results, education secretary John Swinney said.
Swinney stressed that approximately 90% of moderation “involved a change of just one grade”.
An SQA spokesman said: “The most disadvantaged young people have achieved better results in 2020 compared to both 2019 and the average results for the last four years.
“At Grades A to C, the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged young people is also narrower this year for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher than for last year or the average gap for the last four years.”