Gill Stewart, the Scottish Qualifications Authority's deputy director for national qualifications, points to a number of optimistic signs, however.
Young people are showing increasing confidence, ability and interest in creative subjects such as music, art and design, and drama. Physical education, a key ministerial priority, is also showing increased uptake, although the trend in science uptake shows a decline at Higher over the past decade.
In 1995, for instance, 11,600 candidates took Higher chemistry compared with 9,128 this year; for physics, the comparative numbers are 11,952 and 8,565; for biology, 12,000 and 8,995, although human biology has seen a rise in uptake, from 1,900 to 3,720.
Ms Stewart acknowledges that since time immemorial, teachers have been telling pupils to answer the question rather than regurgitate the answer they have learnt. Practical study skills advice appears on the SQA website and the organisation is to hold conferences for young people in particular subject areas that will reinforce this message. "There is a lot of media hype that plagiarism is an increasing problem but we can't quantify that in terms of numbers," she says.
The SQA has seen no increase in the number of cases of malpractice.
She acknowledges that young people need to make more connections in their own minds regarding their literacy skills across all subjects. "When they are writing history or biology essays, or coursework in business studies, for example, it needs to be emphasised that these require the same writing skills as English - it's just a different context."
Xams no place 4 txt msg jargon
A row over whether the Scottish Qualifications Authority is right not to penalise candidates who use text message jargon in their exam scripts - as long as they display an understanding of the subject - has dominated newspaper headlines in the past week.
The principal assessor's report into Standard grade English showed that some students were failing to achieve Credit and upper General grades for writing because the quality of the content of their answers was not supported by "an equivalent competence in the handling of the basics of written expression". The report shows that only in a few cases did students use text language. The SQA has defended its positive marking philosophy by explaining that while text shorthand was "not acceptable" in exams, some marks (but not top marks) would be given for correct answers if written in text jargon. At all exam levels, markers stress the need for young people to develop their vocabulary through extensive reading.
The report into Intermediate 2 English reveals that some candidates struggle to understand the difference between fiction and non-fiction. At Higher level, markers picked up difficulties with summarising texts. The tendency of some pupils to prepare only two texts and distort them to "fit"
the question remains an issue.
Losing the plot
The topography of geography performance shows more valleys than mountains.
While the overall performance at Standard grade Credit level was "commendable", by Advanced Higher level, markers complained that they had seen "a lot of work at a rather basic standard".
One key theme was candidates' failure to read the question properly. For example, in the Higher paper, markers said a substantial number had chosen to write about intensive peasant farming or shifting cultivation. "This was done despite the fact that 'commercial arable farming' was written four times in the question, and accompanied by a photograph of a combine harvester," said the report.
Other weaknesses included poor map interpretation skills, and students'
inability to express their geographical knowledge well enough to merit high marks in longer questions.
Not so much a problem of scant knowledge, but scantily-clad models - students should not send in photographs of themselves modelling their designs of "inappropriate" garments, the principal assessor of Higher art and design has warned. Instead, they should photograph the garments on a tailor's dummy or hanger. The warning strikes a low note in an otherwise very positive series of reports.
The principal assessor of the Higher paper praises the "many examples of excellent work by candidates from all over the country" which is seen as "a direct reflection of the good teaching that is being delivered". Design activity presented more problems than expressive activity, with markers identifying some candidates who should have been entered at an Intermediate rather than Higher level. The practical assignment remains the most problematic area.
At Standard grade level, markers commented on a greater number of "truly outstanding Credit 1" pieces of artwork for the expressive activity element of the exam. Critical activity submissions were "disappointing" compared with the last two years', and a large number of centres ignored the recommended 1,500 word limit, with some scripts as long as 6,000 words.
In a historical straitjacket
Many candidates sitting the eight-mark essay in the Credit paper for Standard grade were congratulated on the quality of their writing, well-constructed paragraphs and valid conclusions supported by relevant evidence. Enquiry skills are steadily improving, and several markers commented on the "admirable creativity" and "inventive insight" of some candidates. However, a number of markers commented on "a marked deterioration in spelling and grammatical construction".
Other concerns include the ability of pupils to answer "how usefu* I " types of questions on sources. At Intermediate 2 level and above, markers expressed concern about "classgroup essays", where candidates from some centres had "virtually the same questions, factors in the same order, the same evidence, quotes, conclusion and so on". In these instances, good candidates were held back by being forced into a straitjacket while weaker candidates also struggled.
At Higher, the best area of performance continues to be the extended essay, although this year markers reported a decline in the number of very good scripts. Candidates are urged to focus more on analysis than narrative.
Dissertations at Advanced Higher level threw up a variety of issues: candidates picking titles entirely outside the course boundaries and time frame; and titles trying to cover too big an area. Footnoting is still problematic with some centres, despite rulings and instructions from the Scottish Qualifications Authority. One candidate had 118 footnotes, all referential, while another had a footnote of 1,000 words.
The Advanced Higher report utters dire warnings about plagiarism - from the Identikit dissertation ("very difficult and unpleasant to mark") where a template has been provided from the centre, to the use of a thesaurus to change the words of copied textual information.
Many pupils, including more able candidates, could improve their grades at Standard grade if they paid more attention to rote-learning of the chemical knowledge in the course. Markers observe that most candidates are more secure in problem-solving than in knowledge and understanding.
Gravimetric and titration calculations are proving "very difficult".
"Despite the fact that nearly 90 per cent of candidates achieved a grade 1 for the internally assessed practical abilities, which includes the titration technique, few could repeat the skill of finding the average volume of acid used in the titration," the principal assessor reports.
At Higher level there were fewer "no attempts" and an improved distribution of awards than in recent years. But many questions that required the recall of basic facts were poorly done by some candidates. Recall of some parts of the Standard gradeIntermediate 2 content is poor. Although calculations are improving, candidates are urged to try harder at learning basic "routines" for the different types of calculations in the course - efforts which would be repaid by picking up part-marks.
Advanced Higher candidates need better advice on how to write up their investigation report and should study the Candidates' Guide published by the SQA.
Je suis desole
Listening, followed by writing in French, are the most difficult areas for candidates at all exam levels. Speaking performance is improving, as is reading comprehension. At Standard grade, many candidates ignored or did not know the word "veut" in the reading section, while many failed to translate "voudrait" - both basic vocabulary. The assessors' reports for Intermediate 1 and 2 were more positive than for Standard grade, albeit that the Intermediate exams attract far fewer candidates. But in the Intermediate 2 and Higher exams, candidates failed to gain easy points because of their inability to recognise numbers.
At a range of exam levels, markers commented on poor handwriting, poor spelling, and the lack of appropriate use of accents. Dictionaries should be used to check the gender and spelling of words candidates had written - not to create new sentences.
Higher candidates showed less evidence of word for word translation than in the past, although some struggled with the "depuis" construction. Many candidates failed to spot the so-called "faux amis" of "car scolaire" and "journee". At Advanced Higher most candidates coped with the comprehension, but markers found that "inadequate English expression made it difficult to distinguish between poor comprehension and poor self-expression".
MATHS Shape of things to come
At Intermediate 1 level, markers report that:
* a "disappointing number of candidates could not calculate 5.42 - 1.8. A common answer was 5.42 - 1.08 = 4.34";
* few were able to multiply 11 x 12 correctly;
* a disappointing number of candidates seemed to think that the United States was in Europe;
* and a disappointing number of candidates could not divide by 9 correctly;
* many candidates had problems dealing with the square root sign, and many were unable to round to the nearest 10 correctly.
Nevertheless, at Standard grade, non-calculator skills were being well-practised in schools, although continuing attention to this was necessary. At Foundation level of Standard grade, markers suggest that area, perimeter and volume need to be not simply revisited but perhaps retaught; at General level, work on triangle and circle properties is required; and at Credit, similar shapes, reverse percentage work, quadratic equations, trigonometric equations and mathematical proofs require work.
By Higher, candidates were scoring well overall, benefiting from the "realigned difficulty gradient". Nevertheless, markers commented on "awkward algebra" and urged teachers to do more work on the formulae for the trigonometric expansions and the double angle formulae.
The Advanced Higher mean mark was down 8.9 per cent on last year, perhaps because of a rise of 12 per cent in the number of candidates.