Slight increase in top-performing computer science students at Higher level as exam results released – but with some major caveats

Computing Science A grades have risen by 2.7% in Scotland, new figures show

The number of top-performing students who achieved an A grade in their computing science Highers showed a 2.7% rise, according to national exam results released in Scotland today, which also showed a worrying 21% reduction in pupils taking the subject.

Of the total number of 3,228 students who entered the examination this year, 748 – 23.2% of the total – achieved the highest grade, new figures published by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) have shown.

That compares to 20.5% of students who took the exam in 2018, although the higher number of As last year (840) was attributable to a larger number of entries (4,099) sitting the subject – meaning the actual number of students was down by 21% ; however, SQA figures show that the total number of entries was down for all Higher subjects this year, from 191,951 to 185,914, – a 3% fall- owing to a smaller roll call nationally for the total number of students taking Highers in Scotland in 2019.

The figures showed a virtually identical pattern for A & Bs with 44% achieving those grades compared to 43.9% last year. However, the range of students achieving A to C was down from 68.7% in 2018 compared to 63.9% this year.

In terms of other courses accredited to the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) level 6 – the SQA’s rating for Higher or Higher-equivalent – the figures showed growth in a number of vocational subjects for ICT. In attainment terms for 2019 there were 94 entries for Computing with Digital Media compared to 88 last year for National Certificate subjects. And for the National Progression Award (NPA), there were 166 entries in 2019 compared to 109 last year for Cyber Security. However, the NPA for Computer Games Development went down from 166 to 109.

Overall, the 2019 results for all students in Scotland showed that A to C pass rates for Highers fell from 76.8% last year to 74.8% in 2019, a yearly variance that Education Secretary John Swinney was to be “expected”. However, for the 288,552 students who sat National 5 exams, the pass rate rose from 77.4% last year to 78.2% in 2019.

However, it should be noted that the grade boundary thresholds were also lower in 2019 compared to 2018: SQA data showed that students needed a mark of 67.5% to get and A grade this year, compared to 71.3% last year; for a B the mark was 56.875% this year compared to 60.06% in 2018 and a C was 46.25% in 2019 compared to 50% 12 months ago. It is not clear and straightforward, though, to say that standards have ‘fallen’; when speaking with an SQA spokesperson, it was pointed out that that when marking papers, examiners go through a reconciliation process, whereby they judge how difficult a paper was against the average grade performance in a given year. On review, it might be decided that a paper was, on the whole, slightly harder or easier than a previous year, and this year’s grade boundary threshold reductions may reflect that, rather than a lowering of standards.

Professor Bill Buchanan, Professor of Computing at Napier University in Edinburgh, was less than satisfied, though, at seeing a marked depreciation of entries for Computing Science, compared to other subjects, regardless of the roll call fall.

He posted a chart, below, and said: “We are seeing a boom in the jobs within digital technologies … software engineers, cloud architectures, data scientists, cybersecurity analysts. And so at school you would think that Computer Science would be booming. Well, not quite. In the Higher exams (N6) in Scotland, Computer Science is switching pupils off in advanced study, and is now in danger of not even being in the Top 20 subjects..

“A drop of 21% is the largest fall of any subject, and Spanish is pushing hard to overtake it, and Biology shows good gains, Computer Science is seen to be crashing at Higher level.” He pointed to similar falls at N5 and N4 level.

Prof. Buchanan added: “So what’s the reason? A dull and out-of-date syllabus? A subject that switches kids off at an early phase? Still seen a male-oriented? A lack of standardisation/sharing of content? A lack of teachers? Too difficult? Too much focus on theory? Lack of leadership? Schools able to easily drop subject? Who knows, but one thing is for sure we are switching kids off with the opportunities that our new world is creating … our societies will be built on software, and we need the next generation to fix the problem that we have caused. The Internet is now around 50 years old, but, at school level, we are still struggling to show our kids a vision of the future.”

Mr Swinney said: “I am pleased to see an overall rise in the pass rate for National 5 with increases in passes for maths and English. At Higher level we have seen a welcome upturn in the collective number of passes for the sciences – something we have focused our efforts on for some time.

“Our learners now have a much wider range of choice than ever before, allowing them to find the route into employment or further education that is right for them. 

“This year for the first time we saw the removal of unit assessments at Higher level, a move that was broadly supported by the education sector. If the pass rate only ever went up people would rightly question the robustness of our assessment system.

“We need to continue to ensure teachers have the right support in place to help them provide the best learning and teaching experiences for our young people.”

Gender balance figures, which have long been an area of debate in computing-related courses, will not be available until later this year.

However, as a reminder, last year showed that of 4,099 entries for Highers in Computing Science, 84% were male and 16% female. But the split between those getting the highest grades showed that female entrants achieved a higher proportion of A grades with 26% compared to 20% male. And the number of candidates achieving A to C grades was 77% for female versus 67% for male.