THE reaction to the SQA’s release of its results has created an outrage: a perception of unfairness to pupils making a real effort to excel and improve ("Storm after exam results see 120,00 pupils downgraded", The Herald, August 5). The crucial failure on the part of the SQA has been one of miscommunication. It should have set out its intended methodology rather than presenting a postscript, too late. It did not set out the rules of moderation, or engagement. Worryingly, it may be because it did not understand them, or their implication.

It appears that the SQA was comfortable statistically when operating at a macro level, paying attention to the politicians’ fondness for publicising increasing percentages of attainment success and the like. The problem here is that moderation and averages swamp individuals, whether across a qualification cohort or a whole school. The SQA is wide-open for criticism, but it has profiled a set of awards reflecting the disparities in the Scottish schooling system. An examination diet describes the situation. On no account can it be used to change it.

How might this have been avoided? The SQA should have set out its protocols of previous school performance and made it clear that an enhanced profile for any pupil would require substantiating evidence. This could have been about the school as well as the individual pupil. As other politicians have pointed out with alacrity, the SQA’s historical assumptions have locked-in bias and perceived unfairness. These two protocols would have avoided unsubstantiated over-claiming by teachers and would have prevented likely exceptional individual performance being lost in the crowd.

But there is a lot more to this story than simply the alleged bureaucratic and methodological bungling of the SQA. Changing the attainment profile in Scotland is a much bigger issue involving educational priorities, capacity (especially teacher numbers) and associated resourcing. The SQA takes a kicking while the Government looks on.

Professor William Wardle, Glasgow G13.

IT is perhaps understandable why the SQA had to downgrade some of the teacher judgments. From looking at the pass rates, if teachers’ estimates were accepted en masse, the following unacceptable student grades would have resulted:

National 5 – Up from 78.2 per cent in 2019 to 88.6% in 2020, according to teacher estimates. An increase of 10.4%. (This was reduced by the SQA to 81.1% – an actual increase of 2.9%)

Higher. Up from 74.8% in 2019 to 88.8% in 2020. An amazing estimated increase of 14%. (This was reduced by the SQA to 78.9% – an actual increase of 4.1%).

Advanced Higher. Up from 79.4% in 2019 to 92.8% in 2020 using teacher estimates. An increase of 13.4%. (This was reduced to 84.9% by SQA – an actual increase of 5.5%) Even the final grades awarded resulted in the largest percentage rise in exam passes in recent memory.

Teachers, understandably, wanted the best for their students, but in doing so, ignored the statistics of their previous year’s school results.

This overestimation could, in some cases, have resulted in genuine passes being overturned as individual pupil performance could not be taken into account – ie, the whole cohort was downgraded.

The sad fact is that the downgrading of pupils’ results in the poorer areas was double that of the better-off areas.

It was an almost impossible job for the SQA to have got right, but hopefully the appeals system will help.

Tom Strang, Former PT Maths, Barrhead.

THERE is much discontent with the way in which school assessments have been carried out in this peculiar year. Normally, these would have concluded with examinations, but this year coursework and teacher assessments are what has counted – until the SQA intervened. It is unfortunate that Scottish youngsters do not have the same opportunity as those in England will have to demonstrate their ability in exams. For decades, there has been criticism of exams, while "continuous assessment" has been favoured. It is true that exams are a throw of the dice on a specific day when some candidates may be out of sorts for one reason or another. Yet continuous assessment puts pressure on them over a lengthy period, and puts pressure on markers to give good grades because the coursework counts towards the final grade. This allows little room for getting it wrong first time and then learning from that.

Exams have a variety of advantages. First, apart from any attempts at impersonation, we know who has done the work, with all candidates under the same controlled conditions. Who knows how much "help" candidates have had with essays or projects completed at home? Second, ostensibly paradoxically, markers in national exams do not know who has done the work because the candidates’ names mean nothing to them. Where candidates are known to markers, their papers can be anonymised. Third, exams provide a good discipline in being time-limited. Completing a task in a set time is a transferable skill, appreciated by employers. Fourth, under pressure of time, candidates are required to think on their feet (in a well-constructed exam), which is another transferable skill appreciated by employers.

Instead, this year Scottish pupils are at the mercy of the SQA’s statistical models. No doubt the SQA has produced an algorithm to guide it. I’m afraid that my experience of this kind of assessment has not been encouraging.

Jill Stephenson, Edinburgh EH14.

PRESCRIBED text for John Swinney: The Leadership Class in Scottish Education by Walter Humes (1986). He's not the first (and won't be the last) education minister in Scotland to place his trust in our large educational institutions only to see it backfire, big time. When will they ever learn?

Derek Johnston, Wishaw.

Read more: Fears teachers will be 'overwhelmed' by SQA exam appeals