The fifth survey in the series carried out under the Scottish Executive's Assessment of Achievement Programme, which tests pupils in primary 4, primary 7 and secondary 2, reveals a poor grasp of even the most elementary skills. Attainment in writing is causing particular concern: barely a third of P7 pupils and only one in five S2 pupils are hitting their expected 5-14 target levels in writing.
The findings, which emerged from an assessment of the attainment of almost 7,000 pupils in 270 schools, will reinforce the Inspectorate's depressingly familiar refrain that youngsters are being seriously short-changed in the first two years of secondary.
Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, could only find "some small improvements" in literacy skills and added: "It is clear that much more needs to be done to raise standards."
Ministers continue to rely on fuller compliance by schools with the 5-14 guidelines to bring improvements. Mr Galbraith also hoped that the pound;60 million investment in early intervention programmes will, with target-
setting, begin to pay dividends by the time the next AAP survey in English is carried out in 2001.
The current state of play in reading is that the primary stages make a reasonable showing with 68 per cent of P4 pupils at their expected 5-14 level B and 73 per cent of P7 pupils at level D. But fewer than half of S2 pupils - 41 per cent - have attained level E.
In writing, 65 per cent of P4 pupils reached level B but performance deteriorated sharply thereafter. Only 36 per cent of P7 pupils were at level D and just
23 per cent of S2 reached level E.
The AAP report notes scathingly of the P7 writing performance: "Only a few pupils seemed to have mastered the punctuation of direct speech although most realised that some 'speech marks' were needed. However, even basic inclusion of full stops, commas and capital letters was often haphazard, and apostrophes seemed to appear wherever there was an 's' or not at all."
By the time pupils reached S2, many "appeared unfamiliar with the spelling of even the most frequently used words or were not sufficiently attentive in their writing. It seems unlikely that they would have taken the trouble to check most of these had they had access to dictionaries.
"Even the most basic punctuation involving the correct use of commas, capital letters and full stops was often inadequate, while the slightly more challenging punctuation of direct speech and the use of apostrophes was frequently completely lacking."
Pat McDaid, English adviser in Glasgow, said he would look at differences in performance between boys and girls, which emerge as early as P4 and may have a strong bearing on the AAP results.
The Executive is to issue a summary of the AAP findings to schools next month, highlighting key points for discussion. The Inspectorate will also issue advice on 5-14 writing soon to complement its report on improving reading in the early years.
Leader, page 18 'Even the most basic punctuation involving commas, capital letters and full stops was often inadequate'