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Putting exams to today's tests

THE nervous wait for news is finally over.

Whether it's delivered by the traditional flop of envelope on doormat or the electronic beep of an incoming text, some 151,000 young people will today receive their exam results.

For most the experience will be a happy one. Pass rates have increased across the board, the Scottish Qualification Authority's figures show, from Standard Grades (up to a hard-to-fail 98.9% in their final year before being replaced) to Highers (up to 77.4%) and Advanced Highers (up to 82.1%).

So first the congratulations. To those who sweated and swotted, planned their revision or crammed in a panic, well done. And three cheers, too, for the teachers who instructed, inspired and ultimately prepared their charges for a record-breaking performance in the exam hall. Their achievements, the huge number of individual successes today, are to be celebrated.

That doesn't mean, however, we should ignore the questions the exam results pose about the state of Scottish education.

Today's stellar pass rates follow a pattern of steady improvement stretching back to the introduction of the present system 20 years ago and inevitably lead to claims of "dumbing down".

It's a familiar argument which pits, on the one hand, a picture of increasingly motivated students and ever more skilful teaching against, on the other, a story of convenient grade inflation masking worrying gaps in youngsters' basic knowledge. Each year the rising pass rates are seized upon as evidence of both but in truth they can prove or disprove neither, reflecting as they do the SQA's own judgment of how exams vary in difficulty from year to year. Each year - unsurprisingly - the argument ends in stalemate, a source of frustration for those who believe in the efforts of students and teachers, and of suspicion for those who cannot believe in the constantly improving results. Perhaps it is time for a different debate. Perhaps we need to ask more searching questions about our exams. In his analysis of this year's exam results Professor Brian Boyd, the Strathclyde University educationalist, suggests a fundamental reassessment is required. Do our exams measure the goals of the new Curriculum for Excellence? Standard Grades are being replaced by Nationals as part of the CfE revolution next year, but will the new tests really reveal what progress a student has made towards becoming a "confident individual", an "effective contributor" or a "responsible citizen," as the curriculum promises? Is the overwhelming emphasis on traditional academic exams and their requirement for memorised historical dates, irregular verbs or mathematical techniques misplaced? Could we, as Mr Boyd puts it, put our faith in "less testing and more teaching" as part of the move to a broader, more balanced classroom experience?

Thankfully we do not have to come up with an answer after three hours of scribbling at a desk in a stuffy school gym. But think about it we should. The drive to raise standards is paramount, whether annual exam pass rates are a reliable guide or not.

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Education

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