THE beleaguered Scottish Qualifications Authority is to retain its key role in handling schools' internal assessment of Higher Still courses, which is increasingly regarded as the catalyst for this year's exam troubles.
A meeting of Higher Still representatives last Friday agreed, however, to a suggestion which actually came from Bill Morton, the SQA's acting chief executive, that assessment returns need only be made once instead of three times to cover each of the internally marked units. It was missing data from these unit assessments, as information was passed between schools and the SQA and then lost, which partly accounted for the mayhem.
A spokesman for the Scottish Executive Education Department told The TES Scotland: "It is not proposed to remove the SQA's responsibilities for internal assessment, including moderation by the SQA, to ensure national standards are maintained."
There was pressure for more substantial change at Friday's meeting which was chaired by Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister. But the Educational Institute of Scotland in particular is anxious to strike a balance between cutting down on the bureaucracy of the Higher Still programme and not radically altering courses already under way.
The SQA proposed that assessment returns be made at the end of April but the unions felt that this was too early and the meeting opted for the end of May. While schools will retain the option to submit internal marks at any time, the significance of being allowed to make one return is that it will be left to them to decide on the timing of unit assessments, the inflexibility of which has been one of the heavily criticised features of the Higher Still programme.
Another key relaxation will be an assurance that schools do not have to use material from the SQA's national assessment bank (NAB). Phillp Banks, HM chief inspector in charge of post-14 education, told the meeting this had always been the case but the Executive would be writing to schools to make the position clear.
Even in cases where a teacher had used an NAB test item which the student had failed, Mr Banks said, a school was under no obligation to go to the bank again.
The outcome of the meeting was hailed as "a commonsense approach to reducing Higher Still bureaucracy" by Margaret Nicol, president of the Educational Institute of Scotland, who said there was a consensus that more substantial changes would cause confusion for teachers and pupils.
Judith Gillespie of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, another member of the group, believes schools will now have much greater control and flexibility.
She and Michael O'Neill, North Lanarkshire's director of education, suggested that formal assessment evidence from schools should only be necessary for candidates who fail the external exam; on past performance, this would affect only 30 per cent of Higher candidates.
The SQA promised to consider this. But a spokesman for the SEED said: "The scope for further changes in carrying out and recording internal assessments for full courses should be considered for introduction in 2001-02."
The review of the first year of Higher Still's implementation, which ministers announced in March, includes a survey of all schools to find out what they think of internal assessment.
The EIS is committed by a conference decision to "the earliest possible removal of internal assessment" from Higher Still courses.
But the union intends to await the outcome of the survey before reaching a final decision since it is the "summative" reporting of assessment that has come under fire and not the ongoing testing of pupils, which teachers have always done.