Ministers are keen to ensure students take appropriate courses, particularly at Intermediate level, but are likely to postpone a new system until 2005. They now run the risk of repeating the debacle of the past two years in which thousands of students took courses for which they were ill-suited.
The problem is clearly illustrated by this year's Higher English exam in which one in four candidates scored as little as 30 per cent or less.
Ministers want to remove compensatory A passes and introduce a new grade D for a narrow fail at the level taken but are wrestling with ways to include it in the national credit framework and university points system. They are therefore unlikely to be able to influence course choices this coming session.
Figures released by the SQA show that this year 170 students received a compensatory A pass at Higher after narrowly failing Advanced Higher, while 4,368 received an A at Intermediate 2 after missing out on their Higher. A further 1,347 students received an A at Intermediate 1 after failing Intermediate 2.
The problem surfaced this time last year when some students gained entry to higher education courses on the back of compensatory A passes at Higher after botching their Advanced Higher. Universities were misled.
Of wider concern was the presentation of thousands of students for Higher when they should be taking Intermediate, a point raised this spring by HMI in its review of English language performance. Anton Colella, the SQA's director of qualifications, said this week: "There is a big job to be done to convince parents of the merits of Intermediate 2."
Analysis of performance in last year's Higher English exam, repeated this year, shows that good students continue to do well but that weaker students do exceptionally badly. By eliminating the bottom 25 per cent who would be better off taking Intermediate 2, the pass rate in English would have risen to around 78 per cent.
Peter Peacock, Education Minister, acknowledged the slump in this year's pass rate for English - down to 59.2 per cent - and promised to consider carefully the report from the subject assessment panel. "They will also consider how to further encourage presentation of candidates at appropriate exam levels," Mr Peacock said.
Some analysts suggest the problem is less to do with the content of the course and more to do with an imperative to take the Higher regardless of ability. The existence of the compensatory A pass has cushioned the decision to attempt a course that may be beyond many.
Teachers also suggest the differences between Standard grade and Higher English may mislead students into believing they can perform strongly in S5 when the skills and content vary significantly.
The SQA is to continue its workshops to ensure teachers understand the expected standards.
Inquest on English, pages 4-5 Leader, page 12
SQA entertains its fan club
A selected group of students from central Scotland schools were given a celebratory welcome at the SQA's Glasgow offices on Tuesday. They were among the 140,056 candidates who accounted for 734,109 exam entries, up by 9,707 on last year.
Pass rates remained steady:
* Up by 0.1 per cent at Standard grades 1-6.
* Up by 2.2 per cent at Intermediate 1.
* Up by 1.1 per cent at Intermediate 2.
* Up by 0.9 per cent at Advanced Higher.
* Down by 0.1 per cent at Higher.
* Entries for the Access clusters rose from 7,333 to 11,173.
* Intermediate entries rose from 87,724 to 96,905.