Students and teachers felt that last year’s exam process was clouded by unfairness and unclear policies, according to an SQA report.

And yet, students and staff can expect much the same from the process in 2024.

A recent report from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) evaluating the 2023 approach to assessment measured student, teacher and SQA staff satisfaction.

A significant portion of the students and teachers called the appeals process unfair. Many noted that, because appeals did not consider students’ performance on coursework or prelims, they amounted to nothing more than a check for clerical errors.

As the SQA summarised, it was “very common for learners to say that they found the appeals system in 2023 unfair”.

In fact, even students who had a successful appeal reported concerns: just 37% of these students felt that the process was fair, while 44% thought it was actively unfair.

Overall, only 14% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they were satisfied with the appeals process in 2023. Nearly 60% disagreed or strongly disagreed, and a substantial 27% landed on the fence.

I feel as though this year was a sad excuse for an appeals process as I was still deeply struggling with the fallout from COVID and having never sat any exams prior to my National 5s.

-Student comment

Teacher responses painted a very similar picture: 45% said that they felt the appeals process was unfair to learners, with just 28% reporting the view that it was fair.

Both students and teachers were concerned that the appeals process did not take previous student work into account.

When an appeal is simply a clerical/marker check, it is almost pointless.

-Teacher comment

In fact, many of those who submitted written responses said that it shouldn’t even have been referred to as an “appeals process.”  

“To call the process an 'appeal' was misleading and disingenuous,” one practitioner wrote.

“Reducing the process to a clerical check, rendering any and all supporting evidence produced by schools redundant, made it impossible for students to have their attainment considered in the same way as that of students under pre-COVID arrangements.”

Another added that the process was “simply an administration effort” to check that scores were added correctly and catch any typos in the data entry process.

Stop calling them 'appeals'...this is a lie. It is not an appeal.

- Teacher comment

Students said that they wanted an appeals system that factored in the impact of the pandemic, which left many students unable to complete foundational lessons in earlier courses that made up part of their SQA exams.

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Both students and staff said that it would have been more fair to allow alternative evidence – such as past coursework and prelim results – to form the basis of appeal decisions. In some cases, teachers pointed to the added workload that this might create but, as the SQA summary pointed out, this was a minority view.

Similarly, the SQA report found that a “small number of respondents” found the appeals process to be fair.

As one teacher put it, giving no weight to alternative evidence “indicates that you do not trust professional teachers to do their jobs.”

The criteria for submitting appeals and the SQA’s decision-making process have been a point of contention for years, with students submitting petitions to reintroduce alternative evidence and calls for more transparency over why appeals are unsuccessful.

I am a fairly anxious person, and it seems that the exam procedure this year has only supported people who can remain calm under pressure. I do not think my grade reflects what I can do.

-Student comment

Students and teachers highlighted similar issues with the SQA’s Examination Exceptional Circumstances Consideration Service (EECCS), which allows extra support for students affected by issues such as bereavement, illness or other circumstances on the day of the exam.

Responses indicated that more clarity around what qualified as “exceptional circumstances” and how to apply for support would have been helpful. Although 45% of students said they understood the service, 35% were unsure and another 20% reported that they did not understand.

If I, as a highly experienced practitioner do not understand [the appeals process], what hope do we have of communicating it to parents and pupils in a clear, concise manner?”

-Teacher comment

Although teachers were more likely to report that they were satisfied with the EECCS (51%) or that it was fair to their students (54%), this left nearly half who reported problems with it. Chief among the concerns was confusion over where the policy applies.

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Some reported that the guidance from the SQA was “clear enough”, but that this was not communicated effectively to parents and students.

“Teachers believed one thing, but parents seem to have thought something else. Politicians waded in and confused things further,” one wrote.

Of those who submitted written comments, more than one-third thought the EECCS was unfair, but those who had to use the service for their students reported having little difficulty or added workload.

As it was so vastly different to the two previous years, learners and parents were confused and upset. This put even more burden on teachers to be the 'go between' between SQA and parents.

-Teacher comment

Because of this, some suggested that making eligibility clearer could benefit learners.

A recurring theme in the survey and written responses was the ongoing impact of Covid-19.

The surveys showed unequivocally that most students and teachers are still struggling to recover from the pandemic. Teachers reported students with little resilience, who are suffering major gaps in their knowledge, and whose delayed social and behavioural development is standing in the way of attainment.

Out of the 3,437 students surveyed, 63% said that the Covid-19 pandemic was still having a substantial impact on learning in 2023; 50% said that they felt it affected the way that they were assessed; and 66% said that the pandemic has affected their development.

Only disruptions on the day of the exam qualify as exceptional circumstances, meaning students could not submit these Covid-19 impacts to support a request for extra support.

I feel COVID strongly affected my basic learning throughout the foundation years and has still impacted me to this day.

-Student comment

The pandemic's impact was a concern shared by senior appointees across the sector and SQA staff who took part in the survey: 84% felt that the pandemic was still having a significant impact on learning and teaching for some learners, while 49% felt that all learners in Scotland were still struggling with its lasting impacts.

The consensus between SQA staff, senior appointees, students and teachers largely ended there, however. When asked if they felt the 2023 approach to assessments and awarding balanced fairness and credibility, 93% of staff and appointees agreed or strongly agreed.  

There was also a disconnect between how clearly staff and appointees felt that expectations were communicated compared to how well they were understood. 82% said that they felt the national standard is articulated clearly in the course specification, while only 59% felt that teachers and lecturers consistently understand those same standards.

Further data from teachers proved this point: 77% agreed or strongly agreed that they have a “good understanding” of the national standard, which left 10% disagreed and another 12% unsure.

When asked about the disconnect between SQA staff and stakeholders, and whether the SQA was aware of teacher and student concerns before agreeing to the policies for 2023, an SQA spokesperson said that the organisation was responding in part to calls for consistency.

“We considered all the findings, and in consultation with stakeholders on the NQ24 Strategic Group, made the decision to keep the exceptional circumstances and appeals services as they were last year.

“This both addresses the call from the education community to keep arrangements consistent and helps to maintain the credibility of the qualifications.”

It is unclear how consistency will continue to factor into the qualifications and assessment framework going forward, given that the Scottish Government has committed to scrapping and replacing the SQA by 2025.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The SQA’s survey and evaluation work will inform their activity this year on qualifications and awarding.

“The Scottish Government is committed to replacing both the SQA and Education Scotland, and it is our intention that the new bodies will be operational in late 2025.

“Engagement with young people and teachers provides important evidence and will continue as the new bodies are established.”