With the release today of the best ever Scottish Higher results, we have inevitably also seen the reigniting of the tiresome annual debate about whether standards are slipping. Today’s Scotsman featured both perspectives. A headline article cited a view from the Institute of Directors that rising pass rates are indicative of dumbing down, and potentially devalue the qualifications (see http://m.scotsman.com/news/education/pass-rate-for-highers-rises-again-amid-suspicions-of-dumbing-down-1-2453391). Others attribute the rising pass rate to improved teaching. So who is right? Or is the situation more complex than suggested by the either/or positions taken annually?

There appear to be  number of factors at play here. Exams may be easier than in previous years, although this is difficult to prove. They are certainly different, as there is a need to test different knowledge and skills nowadays in the face of rapid social and technological change. We should also consider the issue of whether young people today are better equipped to pass exams than were their predecessors. I believe that young people today in general take exams more seriously than my peers and I did – the stakes are higher in schools where there is a constant focus on attainment nowadays, and there is greater pressure to perform. University places are in short supply, and jobs at a premium. It is therefore not surprising if these social forces place an upward pressure on attainment. Arguably today’s young people are more skilled than their parents, immersed as they are in today’s infomation rich environment. It is fashionable to deride youth – as hoodies, hooligans and layabouts – but I am convinced that today’s young generation are worthy of considerable praise, and higher exams results are in part a consequence of their hard work, dedication and educational achievement.

Better teaching is, in my view, also part of the cause of rising pass rates. I believe that teaching has improved, at least in terms of the ability to teach effectively to tests, and probably in general too. Scotland has witnessed a revolution in teaching methods in many respects, following initiatives such as assessment for learning, and the influx of new cooperative teaching approaches. Better attainment is hardly surprising, given that teachers face considerable pressures to raise the attainment of their classes.

However, there is a caveat here – a large one. Better attainment does not equate to better education. Arguably continual pressure to raise attainment has narrowed education, leading to a focus on covering only what is to be tested. Educational research points to the development of tactics to raise attainment, some bordering on the dishonest. There is a focus on borderline pupils, potentially to the detriment of others. Pupils who are not deemed to be able to pass are ‘steered away’ from high profile exam classes. In one high performing school I know, it is standard practice for pupils to be discouraged from doing subjects that they may do less well in – for example, Maths. Now I may be wrong, but it is probably more useful for a young person to leave school having gained a C in Maths than an A in another subject which will never be studied again, and which has less relevance for daily living. One can argue here that an excessive focus on attainment is anti-educational, and not in a young person’s best interests. A particularly invidious and widespread practice lies in the booting of pupils out of higher classes as soon as they start to struggle, relegating them to Intermediate 2 study. This is often driven by a desire to massage the Higher statistics by simply preventing some pupils from taking them – in many cases, the hapless pupils end up doing Intermediate 2 when they already have Standard Grade Credit, effectively repeating a qualification level previously attained (figures from 2009 suggest that this is most prevalent in English, where over 5000 candidates repeated level 5 qualifications in this manner). Such practices are scandalous in my view (see http://m.scotsman.com/news/education/schools-force-pupils-to-drop-highers-to-maintain-pass-rates-says-expert-1-770254) and are good examples of perverse incentives – educational decisions based on non-educational factors.

So are standards rising or not? The simple answer is that it is difficult to judge, as rising pass rates are subject to all manner of complex factors. Perhaps one can only be confident in saying that it is the annual debate that is dumbed down (with its stark either/or positioning), rather than the qualifications themselves. I for one am also positive that we should not denigrate the achievements of the young people passing their Highers, or their teachers who do such a good job preparing them for exams.

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