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Exam chiefs act swiftly to calm Higher Still nerves

Neil Munro reports on moves to end confusion over unit assessment

THE Higher Still authorities are prepared to exercise leniency to ensure pupils make the grade in the first session of the new exams. Anticipating charges of "dumbing down", they insist lessons should be learnt this year and there will be less leeway next year.

The Higher Still Development Unit, backed by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, acted to advise schools after evidence of considerable confusion on how pupils should be internally assessed.

Fears that the new system has led to "assessment overload" for pupils have been played down. One survey, however, claims pupils taking five Highers could be assessed as many as 40 times.

The problem centres on the internally assessed units, three of which make up a course. Each unit involves 40 hours of teaching. The authorities have found that schools have been testing pupils in their first unit before they have adjusted to the more demanding Higher programmes.

Under the old Highers, which will be sat as an open exam for the last time this session, pupils had until May or June to prepare. In some cases the rush to assess has been driven by schools' desire to give students and parents an "early warning" of any problems before the Christmas break.

The position is further complicated when schools fall foul of the "reassessment rule". The SQA recommends that students who fail their first units for whatever reason, including taking them too soon, should be allowed only one resit - and in "exceptional circumstances" two.

It is left to education authorities and schools to define what these circumstances should be.

The development unit has now decided that schools need an "urgent response" to sort out the confusion. It suggests that pupils should be introduced more gently to the demands of the new courses through "informal assessments" such as class tests and homework to confirm they are likely to pass the first internally assessed units.

The offical advice is that "the best strategy is to delay reassessment of unit one until there is confidence that the student is ready, for example by rolling it up with assessment of unit two, perhaps as a prelim. This will allow consolidation of knowledge and understanding, the development of relevant skills and familiarity with the new standard."

The idea of a virtual prelim exam in early spring, in which all three units might be assessed at the same time, is under consideration by the Educational Institute of Scotland, whose annual conference last year passed a highly critical resolution on internal assessment. The HSDU's letter points out that the three course units are not gradual steps towards a Higher "but are all at Higher". The letter adds: "It is unlikely therefore that a student progressing from a lower level will achieve the new level as quickly in the first unit as in later units. A number of students may therefore fail a first unit assessment and reassessment, but still be expected to pass the course assessment at Higher later in the session."

Crucially, the guidance then advises: "Where it is clear that a student nearing the end of a course is attaining a level, but because of the inappropriate timing of the first assessment and reassessment has still to pass a first unit, this constitutes 'exceptional circumstances' and a second reassessment would be acceptable.

"It would be assumed, lessons having been learnt from the first year of implementation, that the timing of first assessments in subsequent years would be adjusted accordingly."

Ron Tuck, chief executive of the SQA, said it was inevitable the timing of assessment during the changeover period would be an issue. "Our strong recommendation remains that one reassessment should be the norm and, in exceptional circumstances, two. But that is only a recommendation and we can't police it. We hope, however, that the strength of our advice is such that what we suggest becomes the practice."

Leader, page 18

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