U-turn on new tests

Education Secretary bows to pressure on assessment in third and fourth year

Elizabeth Buie

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The controversial literacy and numeracy tests are likely to be sat in S3 rather than S4, the Education Secretary has decided.

In her first public reaction to the consultation on the "next generation" of qualifications, Fiona Hyslop bowed to criticisms of her original proposals.

The move on literacy and numeracy tests aims to free up space in fourth year for pupils to sit more than the maximum of five exams originally envisaged under the Scottish Government's proposals.

A number of teacher, headteacher and parent organisations had expressed concern that, by curtailing the number of S4 exams to no more than five, the Government risked making pupils choose their subjects too early.

Ms Hyslop said this week she was asking the Curriculum for Excellence management board to take early decisions on the literacy and numeracy tests - whether they should be external exams or internally assessed.

Ms Hyslop also indicated that she might create some form of safety net to allow the most academic youngsters to bypass S4 exams and move straight to Highers. Her officials acknowledged that, his- torically, there had been a reluctance on the part of schools to allow pupils to bypass Standard grades or Intermediates entirely, in case these pupils did badly in their Highers and were left with few or poor qualifications.

Attempts would now be made to find a way of accrediting what had been done in S4 and S5, even if pupils did not actually sit exams in certain subjects, said one official.

The Education Secretary also appears to have listened to messages from teachers about the perils of over-assessment. A second early task for the ACfE management board will be to consider how the assessment "jigsaw" can be made to work coherently.

Ms Hyslop acknowledged that, in the 1,800 responses to the consultation, there was general support for the unit-based structure of Intermediate exams, but not on whether they should be assessed on a passfail or graded basis.

"Schools and colleges carry out internal assessment to give feedback to candidates on their progress," she said. "It is used to make decisions about performance in units and, importantly, provides information on what skills and knowledge learners have acquired.

"These are all important but there is a risk that this leads to over- assessment, especially in S4 and S5 with candidates spending too much time on assessment and not enough time on learning."

The Scottish Government has commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out further research among young people to inform the next stage of the process. Ipsos MORI has also been asked to analyse the 1,800 responses to the consultation and publish a report by February.

The ACfE management board and the "stakeholder group", chaired by Ms Hyslop, will be tackling some of the practical issues raised in the consultation, such as providing examples of timetables - one of the concerns raised by headteachers.

Ms Hyslop added that directors of education, universities, and teacher and headteacher organisations would be working on the continuing professional development needs of teachers.

"I am determined to ensure the package of decisions we make are fully informed by the best advice, and tested to ensure they can be delivered," she said. "I have no intention to rush this process and risk making quick decisions that we live to regret."

Nevertheless, she promised to make "clear decisions" this academic year to give the Scottish Qualifications Authority time to develop the necessary qualifications, and schools and colleges a clear basis on which to plan.

Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, welcomed Ms Hyslop's initial response to the consultation, in particular the early moves to remove the restriction in S4 to a maximum of five subjects.

Larry Flanagan, education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said he was still not convinced that literacy and numeracy needed to be formally assessed but, if it had to be done, S3 was where it should happen. He welcomed Ms Hyslop's intention to address the EIS's other main concern - the prospect of over-assessment in S4.

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Elizabeth Buie

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