THE Scottish Qualifications Authority "must and will" sort out the assessment problems created by the Higher Still programme, its chief executive pledged last week.
Addressing the authority's annual conference in Edinburgh, Ron Tuck, its chief executive, said the views of teachers and pupils were being sought. He was already aware of complaints from schools about internal unit tests being seen as an "insurmountable hurdle" along with criticisms about burdensome assessment and the complexities of reassessment.
Complaints about late delivery of test materials were, however, "very minor" compared with the 1,514 packs issued from the national assessment bank.
But while the authority would listen and try to respond to concerns, Mr Tuck warned: "We don't want to rush into making ill-considered changes."
Apart from analysing feedback and conducting surveys, the SQA plans to host six Higher Still events for its school co-ordinators in November - at a time when the Higher Still Development Unit is also running 218 seminars to support teachers.
Neil MacGowan, who heads the SQA's Higher Still implementation unit, told a briefing session that steps had already been taken to address particular concerns. In physical education, for example, the initial 27 assessments had been reduced to nine.
Other Higher subjects were being reviewed where strong representations had been made, Mr MacGowan said, including English, computing, drama, economics. In economics, for example, an integrated assessment approach was being considered which would cover the evidence requirements of all three course units. The intention, however, is to "streamline" the system not to make radical changes or sudden shifts in mid-year which would simply annoy teachers.
Mr Tuck also signalled there might have to be a review of the exam diet after complaints that this year's Higher sittings had been compressed into two weeks insted of three.
This resulted from an early decision to shorten the exam period so teaching time could be expanded from 120 hours to 160 hours. The time for marking had consequently to be cut in order to meet the deadline for issuing the exam results on August 10, Mr Tuck told Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, who raised the matter.
But he revealed that markers had been offered a lighter load of exam scripts covering the 4 million question papers which have been issued. The SQA has also had to take on 7,500 markers this year, up by 1,000.
Further pressure will come the authority's way next year following the introduction of a winter diet of exams, introduced largely to satisfy the demand from further education colleges for greater flexibility. Consultations are currently taking place on whether the sittings, beginning in 2001-2002, should be in December or January which Mr MacGowan admitted was a very tight time-scale.
But Gus MacDonald, one of Inverclyde's senior education officials, suggested that there might also be a rapid demand from schools to allow some pupils to sit exams during the winter. "Why have a dummy run or a prelim when you can have the real thing?" Mr MacDonald asked.
Mr MacGowan agreed that the winter diet should not be regarded as being for FE only. It would mean more demands on schools as well as colleges for staff to be released for exam duties. The same setting and marking teams of teachers and lecturers would also have to cover both diets to ensure consistency.
In yet another of the many assurances the SQA was forced to provide during the day, Mr MacGowan pledged to try to reduce the burden on schools to provide staff to act as moderators of internally marked tests.
Tommy Doherty, Higher Still co-ordinator in North Lanarkshire, complained that some teachers were being asked to be out of school for 15 days.