Scotland’s exams authority should drop its requirement for “de-facto school exams” after the Easter holidays, it has been demanded, amid rising anxiety among parents and pupils who have had a year’s learning disrupted by Covid lockdowns.
The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) cancelled formal National 5 and Higher exams in December, but its “alternative assessment model” has been described as “exams by another name”.
Despite a pledge that pupils would be graded based on teacher judgement and continuous assessment, the SQA now expects schools to produce evidence of pupils’ attainment under exam-like conditions.
As a result, thousands of pupils will return to school after Easter to face an intense month of tests before the initial SQA deadline at the end of May, sparking petitions urging the SQA to change its approach.
The row comes months after pupils took to the streets to protest at the process the SQA employed last year to award qualifications after the exams were cancelled.
The algorithm used was found to be biased against pupils from schools in Scotland's most deprived areas, marking them down. As a result education secretary John Swinney had to reverse the decision to downgrade 124,000 exam results for 76,000 pupils.
Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer said: “The SQA needs to drop the ludicrous requirement that the evidence submitted to them across a range of subjects must have been produced under exam-like conditions.
"This diktat is creating a pressure-cooker environment for both pupils and teachers, who are only just returning to class, but who now face a non-stop timetable of de-facto exams in the weeks after their Easter break.
“Scotland’s exams authority isn’t fit for purpose. Teachers have known this for years and last year’s entirely avoidable grading shambles demonstrated that to the rest of the country."
The final deadline for submission of pupils evidence for the SQA is June 25, but the exams authority will begin quality assurance checks and requests for evidence from the end of May.
As a result many schools and councils have replicated a typical exam timetable throughout May for their senior pupils despite months of remote learning.
Scottish Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene said: “John Swinney is once again letting down our pupils and teachers. He’s running the risk of having an unfair awards process for the second year in a row because he’s not put effective replacements in place for exams.
“Teachers must be afforded the flexibility to do what they think is best to award grades. Pupils have suffered disruption over the last year and many simply aren’t ready for these assessments, but are bearing the brunt of a lack of leadership from John Swinney.
“This looks and feels like history repeating itself. The SQA were once again late to the table with guidance and are setting young people and teachers up for another disaster.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said fairness needed to be at the heart of the replacement system.
"Pupils are telling us a lot is being crammed into a short period of time at short notice,” he said. “This hasn't been helped by delayed decision making and late guidance.
"I can understand pupils' anxieties because it went badly wrong last year. Teachers are sick of being cut out of the loop and their confidence in the SQA is at an all-time low.
"Scottish Liberal Democrats have just won a vote at Parliament to reform the SQA to put teachers at its heart. We will get on with that because the SQA has shown it can't be trusted with the important job of helping education bounce back."
And Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson Michael Marra added: “The pandemic has been especially tough on school pupils and now the SNP's incompetence in running our education system is denying them a fair chance in this hugely important moment in their lives.
“Despite last year’s exam moderation disgrace, John Swinney and the SQA have clearly learnt nothing.
“Pupils and parents were told that exams were to be cancelled and it is now clear that in many areas that will not be the case.”
Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association (SSTA), told BBC Radio's Good Morning Scotland programme there was a lot of confusion because exams were cancelled prior to Christmas and everyone assumed it would be course work and continuous assessment.
Mr Searson said schools were now trying to gather evidence for awarding grades and were falling back on the question papers provided by the SQA.
He said: "At the moment, the government guidance is that when pupils go back to school after Easter, it should be for teaching and learning. Assessments should come towards the end of the session. That is the mistake schools are making."
Mr Searson said schools were probably concerned there may be another lockdown and were trying to put these assessments in early so they had some evidence.
He said: "There are a lot of children who won't have been engaging during lockdown who will be totally disadvantaged by the systems these schools are trying to bring in.
"The system put in place at the moment looks straightforward, but it's actually micro-managing teachers' decisions. This is where the panic is starting to come in. Teachers are now looking for pieces of evidence to prove to the SQA their grades are correct."
The Scottish Qualifications Authority said it had "made it clear that there is no requirement to replicate a full formal exam or prelim diet".
The body said it had provided detailed guidance to schools and there was flexibility on how assessment evidence was gathered.
"Schools and colleges know their learners best, so it is appropriate that they deliver assessments which suit their circumstances this year," the SQA said.
"Evidence requirements have been significantly reduced – it is about quality, not quantity."