Concerns have mounted this week about the stress on pupils facing weeks of daily assessments after a year of interrupted learning as a result of the Covid pandemic.
Mr Swinney, who survived a vote of no confidence over the Scottish Government’s handling of the exams last year, said schools had been given “flexibility” over how to assess pupil attainment, and the under-fire Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) would not “overturn” grades awarded by teachers.
But he confirmed an appeals process would be announced as he was called to the Scottish Parliament to answer an urgent question after mounting concern over assessments.
Newly-elected Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone allowed a question from Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene, asking the government to respond to “the reported growing and widespread concern over the 2021 Scottish Qualification Authority’s examination, assessment and awards process”.
Mr Greene said the “non-exam exams” had been described as another “unfolding debacle” by Professor Mark Priestley, author of the review into the chaos of the 2020 SQA exam diet.
He accused SNP ministers and the SQA of burying their “heads in the sand and refusing to admit that pupils are sitting exams in all but name” and said it was “abundantly clear that history is repeating itself”.
However, Mr Swinney said this year’s alternative certification model had been designed by the new National Qualification Group 2021, which had been a recommendation of Prof Priestley in his review.
He added: “The grades will be determined by the judgement of teachers which will be informed by demonstrated attainment of student achievement over a number of assessments rather than an end of year exam.
“The unavoidable second period of remote learning since January has unfortunately meant students are doing assessments over a shorter period than first anticipated.
"To help address this, course work has been reduced in most subjects and schools have been given flexibility over which assessment tools to use to inform teacher judgement of learners’ grades, which will not subsequently be overturned by the SQA.
"The system is working together to deliver the best approach possible under the circumstances to ensure that the hard work of learners is recognised fairly.”
And in a swipe at Mr Greene’s questions, the Cabinet secretary said the fact the SNP had been re-elected "with an increased mandate from the people of Scotland” had not “changed the narrative of Mr Greene and all he said in the last parliamentary term”.
He said: “We do young people no service whatsoever to translate every discussion in this Parliament about education into the pejorative conversation that Mr Greene has put on the record.
"If I’m trying to move the debate on education forward to a different place after having been returned to office after all the things said about me and this government, the least people will expect is for Mr Greene to change the record.”
However, Mr Swinney also found himself pressed on the exams by SNP MSP Bob Doris and Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Michael Marra, who said the education secretary’s remarks were significantly different to the "lived experience of pupils and teachers” who he said had displayed “real anger” about the situation.
The education secretary responded that a “circular” issued to schools in April had stated “there is no requirement to replicate full formal exams or prelims this year”.
He added: “That’s a pretty clear piece of guidance to the system. No requirement for exam halls, no need for that ... there’s a world of flexibility offered to schools.”
Mr Swinney also revealed the SQA had “consulted on the appeals process, the issue has been discussed by the NQA and I expect information on that to be published shortly”.
Meanwhile the Scottish Liberal Democrats have called for a full parliamentary statement on the exams.
In a letter to Mr Swinney, the party’s education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart told of a pupil in her constituency who is facing the equivalent of an assessment a day for eight weeks.
Ms Wishart wrote: "The alternative arrangements imposed by the SQA for this year’s exams are clearly and indisputably causing harm to young people and their teachers.
"Few would have thought it possible to see a system do more damage than last year. But reports from constituents make it clear that there is every likelihood this year’s arrangements could be worse, in terms of equality, fairness and mental health.
"Pupils who were told exams were off are now finding lots of them crammed into a short period of time, at short notice.
"One reported that a pupil has 40 assessments in eight weeks, which averages at one a day for eight weeks.
"A constituent described this as ‘the worst outcome that could ever possibly have happened’.
"Teachers and pupils are exhausted. I’m told many are unable to sleep because of stress, and that anxiety is on the increase.”
She added: "To claim, as the First Minister has, that the SQA’s demand for evidence-based grading is the same as teacher judgement shows either a serious misunderstanding of your government’s policies on the ground, or shows an active desire to mislead the public about what is being asked of teachers and pupils.”
Ms Wishart raised concerns about the workload the assessments were placing on teachers “for less than minimum wage because the extra payment is so small".
She said it was “unclear” why the SQA had removed itself from its normal responsibilities.
"These reports bring a troubling sense of déjà vu with them,” she wrote.
“Last year all warnings were ignored by yourself and the SQA until the damage had been done. I worry the same has happened again. The un-minuted meetings between yourself and the SQA do nothing to put those concerns to rest.”