Fears are growing that pupils seeking to obtain national qualifications over the coming school year will miss out on vital opportunities to boost their chances of success through assignments.
The concerns come after the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) published new modification summaries that outline how courses will be assessed in 2021-22.
They confirm the assignment requirement will be removed at different levels in popular subjects including history, geography, the core sciences and modern languages. The guidance says scrapping this element means class time is freed up to teach key course content and stresses that Covid restrictions will make it particularly difficult to carry out practical work necessary for assignments in areas such as science.
SQA bosses also said coursework had been retained or reinstated in subjects such as English, music, business and economics. They added that the “vast majority” of research and coursework aspects at Advanced Higher level had been kept.
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However, critics said dropping assignments could make life more difficult for pupils who might expect to do better in coursework compared with a high-stakes external examination, particularly since many will have limited or no experience of sitting such tests after they were cancelled in 2020 and this year due to Covid-19. It also comes amid growing calls for fundamental reform of Scotland’s assessment system and a greater emphasis on continuous, formative, portfolio-based and teacher-led approaches.
Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said earlier this month that formal examinations would be held next year “if safe to do so”. The content of courses has also been reduced or modified to reflect previous upheaval. For example, some topics in maths will be dropped from final exams, while English portfolios only require one piece of writing to be completed.
Eileen Prior, Executive Director of parents’ organisation Connect, has voiced concern over changes in some subjects.
She said assignments represented “an opportunity for young people to demonstrate and apply their skills and knowledge” and “seem to be much more closely aligned with the principles of Curriculum for Excellence” than many other types of assessment.
“For those who shine at applying knowledge and skills in non-exam conditions, removing assignments as part of assessment will be a disappointment and a set-back,” she added.
“We very much hope that in the interests of fairness, equity, equality and truly reflecting young people’s knowledge and understanding, we are not moving exclusively to exams or timed memory tests, as was the case last year.
“Our young people’s experience of school is one where independent work and assignments have played a significant part. They have been disadvantaged enough by Covid-19, without the qualification system defaulting to exams as the only type of assessment for SQA qualifications.”
One school leader, who asked not to be named, previously said axing assignments might save some time but can mean stripping out a component where candidates often do well. He said: “They lose out on this opportunity and more reliance is placed on the exam… We need to be mindful that pupils sitting Highers and Advanced Highers will not have the experience of sitting exams at National 5. For our S6 pupils this will be their first ever external exams. Schools will need to plan to support pupils with this.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary at the EIS union, said: “There is a balance to be struck between reducing the assessment burden to allow more teaching and learning time and also ensuring that assessments don’t become exclusively high stakes exams, which can disadvantage some groups of students.
“Continuing with last session’s streamlined approach is a pragmatic approach, which seeks to recognise the disruption to learning which the pandemic has caused.”
The SQA has defended the newly published modifications.
A spokeswoman said: “These changes, many of which were also in place last year, have been made to reduce the amount of assessment to take account of disruption to learning.
“This is to ensure fairness to learners in 2022. Our consultation last year on modifications prompted over 23,000 responses – from teachers, learners, parents and carers – and showed widespread backing. We’ve worked with teachers on subject-specific changes to ensure they are fair to all learners.”