About SQA Standards

How are unit standards set?

All SQA qualifications are unit-based. Each SQA unit is a qualification in its own right, but many can also be grouped into larger qualifications.

Statement of standards

All unit specifications include a statement of standards. This tells the reader the outcomes that have to be achieved, the standard of achievement that must be reached, and the evidence that must be produced to successfully complete the Unit.

In SQA Higher National units, the statement of standards comprises:

In SQA National Units, the statement of standards comprises:

Quality assurance during development

All SQA qualifications go through quality assurance and validation processes carried out by subject experts, to ensure they are valid, credible and fit for purpose.

How are unit standards applied and maintained?

All SQA Units are assessed internally by centres.

Internal assessment means that assessors in our centres are responsible for deciding how candidates have performed in relation to the standards for the qualification. They do this either by using assessment tasks that they have devised themselves, or by using assessments that SQA has devised.

Verification is a quality assurance procedure that we use to make sure that centres' assessment decisions are in line with national standards. This ensures all candidates are assessed to a common standard.

How are standards set in the national courses?

The standard that has to be achieved to be awarded a national course is stated in the individual course specification. The course specification also lists the Skills for Learning, Life and Work (SfLLW) that should be developed by the course. For National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, the course specification defines the mandatory assessment requirements for each level.

At National 4, the Added Value Unit Specification defines the mandatory requirements for the Added Value Unit, including the Outcomes and Assessment Standards. 

How are standards applied and maintained in the national courses?

SQA has a responsibility to individual candidates and to the wider community to ensure that the standard of our qualifications is maintained over time and across courses. This means that we have to make sure that the grade a candidate receives recognises achievement against the established grade descriptions of a course. It also means that we have to make sure that it is not easier or harder to achieve the same result in different years.

For national courses at National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher, the course specification provides the template for the development of course assessments that meet the national standard and are consistent from year to year.

After sitting the course assessment candidates are assigned grades based on the marks that they have attained. This is done through a process called “Awarding”.


The awarding process is what many people would consider as 'standard setting'. This is where the grade boundaries for a course assessment are decided. Grade boundaries are the marks needed in order to achieve a particular grade for a course. SQA reviews these grade boundaries each year to ensure exam results are fair across the whole of Scotland, year on year.

Senior SQA staff meet with subject specialists so that they can talk about whether the course assessment was set at the right level of difficulty. For example, sometimes a question can prove to be more difficult due to the way it was worded. When this happens, we rely on the subject specialists and statistical information to justify whether the question was more difficult, or indeed easier than intended.

In order to determine how difficult a course assessment was, we review a range of information such as:

This information allows us to establish the level of difficulty of the course assessment.

How does SQA report on standards?

SQA reports information on standards to candidates, centres and the general public.

Annual statistics

Our annual statistical report includes information on how candidates have performed in all SQA qualifications.

External and internal assessment reports

External assessment reports provide information on how candidates have performed in National Qualification external assessments. They also provide an analysis of the assessment used.

Internal Assessment reports provide information on how candidates have performed in Vocational, Higher National, and National Qualification internal assessments.

External and internal assessment reports for National Qualifications can be found on individual subject pages. Internal assessment reports for HN are available on sector-specific pages.