Standard grade exams have fulfilled their purpose in improving the performance of pupils from disadvantaged families. But the gap in achievement between pupils from higher and lower social classes continues, with implications for entry to higher education.
An American academic, using the two-yearly Scottish Young People's Surveys, has measured the links between social class and performance in English, mathematics and science between 1984, when pupils sat O grade, and 1990, when almost all local authority schools offered Standard grade.
Professor Adam Gamoran of Wisconsin University, who has a Scottish base at Edinburgh University's Centre for Educational Sociology, says: "Curriculum reform can be an effective lever for social change."
However, at the top end of performance, the gap remains. Professor Gamoran has calculated that in 1984 a pupil from an advantaged background had an 86 per cent chance of obtaining a "pass" (level A-C) in O grade English and a 78 per cent chance in mathematics. The chances for a pupil with a disadvantaged background were 26 per cent and 12 per cent.
In 1990 the inequality was about the same: 91 per cent and 80 per cent in English and maths for the advantaged pupil and 32 per cent and 18 per cent for the disadvantaged. A similar picture emerged from science exams.
Professor Gamoran says that the successful elements of Standard grade may be part of a pattern that should continue with the introduction of the Higher Still programme and extended opportunities for post-16 qualifications.
Pupils who do not receive Credit-level awards at Standard grade may succeed at Highers if they have a longer time to prepare, as Higher Still would allow. That might benefit those from a disadvantaged background.
Improving Opportunities for Disadvantaged Students: changes in S4 examination results 1984-1990. Available from CES, Edinburgh University, 7 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh EH8 9LW.