Swinney slams SQA over ‘incomprehensible’ exam

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Education Secretary John Swinney has accused the SQA of failing at its “core purpose” after it set an “incomprehensible” exam.

The National 5 Computing exam, sat by nearly 8,000 teenagers in May came under fire after teachers found errors in all but two of the paper’s 21 questions.

Typographical errors in the exam included a question that read: “Give one reason of using this type of selection” while another gave the weight of a tablet computer as 65kg – nearly 100 times more than they usually weigh.

The SQA claimed that the paper met their specifications, but Deputy First Minister, John Swinney, said it raised “significant issues” about the authority’s performance.

Swinney’s remarks will come as a blow to the SQA, which just two years ago was forced to defend its new National 5 exams after around 40% of pupils failed some courses.

Similarly, the exam board was forced to drop the pass rate for last year’s Higher Maths exam to 34% after admitting it was “more demanding than intended”.

Speaking to MSPs at Holyrood, Swinney said: “We cannot have questions that are incomprehensible; that is the SQA not fulfilling its core purpose.

“Let me get it absolutely clear to the committee the importance I attach to this point.

“This is the core purpose of the SQA – that should be clear – if this is not done correctly, obviously there are significant issues about the performance of the SQA. So I think this is absolutely core territory.”

As well as the obvious typing mistakes, teachers criticised the exam for featuring coding errors and a confusing layout.

Other Scottish politicians have also criticised the exam.

Liz Smith, Conservative Shadow Education Secretary said: “It is simply not good enough that these errors are appearing despite all the guarantees provided by the SQA that mistakes will not happen again.”

Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens said: “How a paper which seems so thoroughly flawed could have made it through quality control processes and on to students’ desks raises serious concerns and I will be raising this issue with ministers as soon as possible.”

After initially claiming that the paper was acceptable, the SQA backtracked and admitted it featured several mistakes.

An initial statement published by the SQA read: “The National 5 computing science exam paper met our course and assessment specifications and allowed candidates to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding.

“The anecdotal feedback we have received from teachers and candidates has been positive.”

They later altered their line, and released a statement saying: “The National 5 computing science exam paper met our published course and assessment specifications. The paper did contain a small number of typographical errors.”

Today, an SQA spokesman added:  “SQA takes its responsibility to uphold the high standards of Scottish qualifications very seriously and has systems in place to ensure assessment is high-quality, rigorous and meets national standards.

“These systems and processes are subject to continuous improvement.”

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