The Executive has this week published the most recent 5-14 attainment figures - despite admitting they are unreliable.
Ministers are consulting on the replacement of the annual 5-14 national survey with expanded sampling of performance through a revamped Assessment of Achievement Programme. They argue that the 5-14 test data based on teachers' judgments "may not be entirely reliable" and that "there is no guarantee that they would be any more reliable in the future, unless schools' assessment priorities and practices changed".
Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, nonetheless welcomed what he called a continuing trend of improvement in literacy and numeracy. "More pupils are hitting the mark in critical subjects," he added but acknowledged continuing problems with the early secondary years and with boys.
Although there are signs of improvement, particularly in the bogey subject of pupils' writing, the Executive's acknowledgment of weaknesses in the system has created difficulties for it to be too enthusiastic about the results - not least because it has to face the fact that the 5-14 figures have shown rising standards while AAP surveys have highlighted a decline.
The 5-14 data, for the 2002-03 session, continues to show much the same pattern as before - a strong performance in the early years which steadily worsens into upper primary and lower secondary. But pupils are doing better at each 5-14 level compared with previous years.
The decline by stages is evident in the overall picture which shows 89.3 per cent of P3 youngsters achieving level A as expected (up 3.5 per cent from 1999), falling to 55.3 per cent of S2 attaining level E (up 7.5 per cent from 1999).
The improvement over four years at the troubled S2 stage means the headline embarrassment that "over half of 14-year-olds" have failed to achieve basic levels has been turned round. More than half now achieve level E in the basics - 60.6 per cent in reading, 51.2 per cent in writing and 54.2 per cent in maths.
Only two education authorities failed to have more than half their S2 pupils attain level E in reading (Midlothian and Glasgow), 12 in writing and seven in maths.
The gap between boys and girls widens with age in all three areas of the curriculum, most dramatically in writing, where there is a 7 per cent difference in the numbers attaining level A in P3 which grows to a 17.5 per cent advantage for girls achieving level E in S2.
Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's education spokesperson, concentrated on the "children being left behind" - those arriving in secondary school with only a P3 performance. These totalled 1,566 in reading, 1,742 in writing and 1,732 in maths - down on 1999 but up on the previous session.
The Tories highlighted Labour's 1999 election pledge to have all P7 pupils achieving 80 per cent of the required level in reading, writing and maths.
The best achievement by that yardstick is the 72 per cent of P7 who reached level D in reading; the 80 per cent target was only exceeded in reading by East Dunbartonshire, East Renfrewshire and Shetland.
HOW THE PRESS SAW RESULTS
Almost half of 14-year-olds failed national writing tests - The Scotsman
Figures reveal girls are still outperforming boys in schools - The Herald
Generation written off - Scottish Daily Mail
We're failing our children- Scottish Daily Express
Scottish teenagers 'failing' in three Rs - Aberdeen Press and Journal
Girls still outshining boys in the three Rs - Dundee Courier
More Scottish pupils being left behind, claims SNP - The Times
More pupils of 13 'failing tests for seven-year-olds'
- The Daily Telegraph
It's class warfare - The Daily Record
Reading test blow - The Sun