The new National 4 and 5 qualifications will mark a radical departure from traditional exams, The TESS can reveal.
Instead, case studies, performances, practical tasks and projects will be used to assess pupils in some subject areas. It is an acknowledgement that some exams are no longer fit for purpose.
The SQA is to publish the design principles for the new national qualifications next month but, unlike the "unit by unit" approach of the current system of internal assessment, schools will be allowed to use a single assessment project to produce evidence covering a number of units.
New unit specifications will also be slimmer and less detailed, John Allan, the SQA's policy manager for Curriculum for Excellence, told heads in North Ayrshire last week.
The documents would "float to the floor rather than plunge to it in future", he promised.
The new Nationals, which will run alongside Standard grades and Intermediates 1 and 2 in 2014-15 and then replace them completely, will have a greater emphasis on skills development, although they will still require students to show knowledge and understanding of the subject as well as skills.
Teachers will be able to devise their own assessments, if they wish, which will be quality assured by the SQA. But it is anticipated that the vast majority will use assessments from the new National Assessment Resource (NAR) bank.
The new National 4 will consist of a notional 120 hours of work covering the new skills-based units, plus 40 hours of "added value" work - focusing on deeper understanding or application of skills.
The decision not to make National 4 externally assessed has come in for criticism, but Dr Allan disclosed that there had been a lot of debate about whether National 5s, Highers and Advanced Highers could also be internally assessed. "Universities don't send their exams away to be marked by someone else," he pointed out. "So why do they in schools?"
Dr Allan said exams in future, right up to Advanced Highers, must address "assessment overload". This would include giving teachers more scope for professional judgment on what is assessed and how, "rather than by applying a test created elsewhere".
Elizabeth Buie, firstname.lastname@example.org
John Allan took questions from various secondary heads about future assessment in the senior phase.
Headteacher: How can you teach National 4 and 5 together?
JA: All the flexibility of National 4 goes out the window if you tie them together. As National 4 is internally assessed entirely, it is not tied to the diet, so pupils can do it at any time. Some schools might want to have Level 3 (Access) and National 4 together, and National 5 and Level 6 (Higher) together.
Headteacher: In the literacy and numeracy qualifications, how many items will be required for the portfolio? Three?
JA: We have not tied down the number of examples yet.
Headteacher: In terms of articulation between National 4 and 5 and S1-2, how do we prepare young people to make the next step into S3-5?
JA: The articulation will be at the end of S3, not S2. The guidance is clear - pupils should only sit exams early in exceptional cases, rather than in whole groups.
Headteacher: The 160 hours for National 4 - does that now have to start in S4?
JA: There can't be assessment for qualifications before S4, but there can be formative assessment. The Government is keen to maintain the integrity of the broad general education in S1-3; learning for qualifications can begin earlier than S4, but assessment should not.