Scotland’s school exam pass rate drops from peak of pandemic

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The pass rate for pupils taking school exams in Scotland has fallen from records for the past two years, after formal assessments returned for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

In Scottish Higher Examinations – the university entrance qualification roughly equivalent to A Levels in England and Wales – 78.9 per cent of marks were an A to C pass this year.

The pass rate was down from 87.3% last year when teacher assessments replaced exams, according to results released by the Scottish Qualifications Authority on Tuesday, but higher than 74.8% in 2019.

A similar pattern has been recorded in the results of the National 5s in Scotland, which are equivalent to the GCSEs in England and Wales, with a level between 2021 and pre-pandemic levels.

The drop in the pass rate is a sign that the exam system is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels after two years of grade inflation.

SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said while this year marked a return to exams, it did not mark a “return to normal”.

In recognition of the continued disruption to student learning due to Covid-19, students taking exams this year have received additional support, such as advance notice of certain test subjects and formula sheets.

“Together, we’ve ensured fairness for learners while maintaining national standards — and learners can have confidence in their grades,” Robertson said.

A record proportion of Scottish students have won a place at their first-choice university this year. UCAS, the college admissions service, said 60.1% of students got their first choice, up from 57.5% before the pandemic.

As part of the UK’s devolved education system, Scottish students sit a different set of exams than their English and Welsh counterparts. A-level results will be released on August 18 and GCSEs a week later.

Across the UK, formal exams have been canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. Regulators initially sought to keep the distribution of student grades in line with previous years by basing results on predicted grades calculated by an algorithm.

But the system was scrapped and replaced by teacher-assessed grades after a significant number of students performed worse than their teachers expected.

This method of assessment led to overall higher levels of achievement. This year, reviewers have sought to partly reverse that situation by bringing the distribution of scores closer to pre-pandemic levels, while setting grade limits more generously than in previous years.

The proportion of A grades awarded in higher education was 34.8%, down from 28.3% in 2019 and 47.6% in 2021.

In National 5, the success rate this year was 80.8%, compared to 78.2% in 2019 and 85.8% last year.

Scottish Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said this year’s performance was “one of the strongest strings of results ever for an exam year”.

Gavin Stewart, 17, a pupil at St Benedict’s High in Renfrewshire, west Scotland, achieved top marks in Advanced Higher Maths, Higher Politics and Physical Exercise. In September, he will enroll at the University of Glasgow to study mathematics and politics.

He said his school had done a good job of preparing students despite the lack of familiarity with exams after the pandemic break. “It was strange in a way, because the only experience I had of [formal] exams was. . . in 2019,” he noted.

However, he believes that schools should rely less on exams for student assessment. A survey last year by the Scottish Youth Parliament, an organization representing young people in Scotland, found that most students would prefer a system based on continuous assessments or a combination of tests and courses.

“Coming out of the pandemic, this is an opportunity for us to change the system,” Stewart said.

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