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A benchmark for Highers

Get your retaliation in first. That seems to have been the politically sensible and sensitive reason for commissioning research into standards in Higher subjects with a view to measuring whether they have declined. South of the border there has been much controversy about A-levels, the "gold standard" exams. The Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Office must have felt that sooner or later the spotlight would focus on the Higher, and so researchers were asked to compare past performance with present.

The results, showing no decline, might have been pointed if the A-level debate had continued this year, but not even the hand-wringing element of the political right had much to squeeze from this year's A-levels and so the pressure has been off here, too.

That said, the exercise by the Scottish Council for Research in Education has been worth while although the lessons are limited. Despite a hundred years of the Highers and an examination board that approaches its honourable demise sporting a halo of esteem, there proved inadequate evidence to do as longitudinal a study as was desirable.

No doubt it would have been politically crass to start in 1979, when the Conservatives came to power, but the plan was for a 10-year comparison from 1983. Scripts proved available in the four chosen subjects only from 1987. Even then the number of scripts for comparison was slight, leaving aside the additional problem of changed courses and "revised" Highers. The Scottish Qualifications Authority would do well to keep sufficient material for research - and simply out of historic interest.

In the search for like-by-like comparisons, the researchers were much more hampered than their colleagues in the Assessment of Achievement Programme. The latter are empowered to subject successive batches of P4, P7 and S2 pupils to questions covering the same areas of knowledge and understanding. The Highers team was at the mercy of the setters of past papers whose skill at making similar demands year upon year, followed by the consistency of markers, was as much on trial as candidates' competence.

All groups emerge creditably. The tools of mathematics may be wielded less expertly by the most recent generation of pupils in early secondary than by their predecessors (as the AAP tells us), but by the time of sitting Highers standards appear broadly constant. The same applies to English, biology and geography.

That finding should be set in twin contexts. First, more pupils are "passing" their Highers. Second, with more staying at school after S4, the need for a wider range of exams as proposed in Higher Still becomes year by year more urgent. The panoply of Higher Still courses and exams will, in time, demand regular research studies building on the SCRE's example and with better sources of evidence.

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