Scottish secondary exams 'out of date' and should be phased out, says report

Secondary exams like National 5s and Highers are "out-of-date" and should be phased out, with more use of teacher estimates for qualifications, a report by international experts has found.

The Coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in Scotland's exams diet being cancelled this year and next, has exposed "underlying issues" with the current system, according to the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA).

The body also warns that physical schools will always be essential and Scotland must not become "over-exuberant" about shifting to a greater system of blended and remote learning even after the pandemic.

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Scots exams are "out of date"

A review of the Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) should also be undertaken, the report states, a decade after the regime was fully implemented in classrooms across the country.

Exams in Scotland have been controversial this year, with a system of teacher assessments used to determine grades for pupils after the pandemic lead to cancellation of sit-down tests.

A disputed algorithm used to ”moderate” the estimates saw thousands of pupils estimates downgraded, before a U-turn by ministers saw them reinstated.

But today's report warns the experience of Covid should point the way ahead for exams in Scotland in future.

"High school examinations are essentially an out-of-date 19th and 20th-century technology operating in a 21st-century environment,” the report warns.

"Digital technology is transforming our capacities for self-assessment, peer assessment, shared assessment and continuous assessment."

Although "sit-down examinations" may still have a role, they can be "taken and retaken like driving tests" throughout the year, the report adds, rather than in in a "one-time, high-stress, win/lose moment”.

"There is a need for a greater role for internal assessment in determining qualifications that better match the knowledge and skills demanded by wider social and economic change,” the report adds.

"Building from the learning stimulated by the pandemic, a new balance between internal and external forms of assessment is needed.”

The schools curriculum should also be “re-evaluated”, the experts add.

"In the new era ahead of us, Scotland should consider introducing an agreed cycle of curriculum reform that creates necessary flexibility, balances national imperatives with local needs and circumstances, and encourages the kind of broad engagement in thinking that characterised the original national debate that led to CfE," it adds.

This should include greater use of digital technologies and platforms, which could pave the way to more blended learning even after the pandemic.

ICEA member Professor Chris Chapman, chair of educational policy and practice at Glasgow University, said: “Despite the challenges that we have faced during the global pandemic, it has been a pleasure to work with ICEA colleagues to offer challenge and support to the Scottish education system so that all children and young people of Scotland can achieve their full potential.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the report recognised the “effort and resources” going in to narrow attainment gaps.

“It reinforces the issue of equity as the defining agenda of our time, says we have an excellent standing internationally and that Scottish education can be a ‘global standard bearer in a post-pandemic world,” he said.

“That is no easy task and the report provides a series of detailed recommendations to help us not just get back to normal, but to use the pandemic as an opportunity to develop a more resilient education system for the future."

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