New attainment data shows that Scottish students are performing better in literacy and numeracy compared to last year, across all levels.

The official Achievement of Curriculum for Excellence Levels (ACEL) in numeracy and literacy (including reading, writing, listening and talking) uses teacher judgment to report the percentages of P1, P4, P7 and S3 pupils who are reaching CfE targets for their grade level.

ACEL data has faced questions over its methodology and application during its relatively short lifespan, since first being introduced in 2016/17.

And reports of record high attainment contrast with recent international results showing widespread decline, including in Scotland.

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The 2022/2023 report shows attainment levels across all primary levels and S3 have increased since 2021/2022.

In addition, the Scottish Government is also reporting that the attainment gap between pupils from the most and least deprived areas has fallen across the board.

The literacy gap at the primary level has reached a record low since this data was first gathered in 2016.

This marks a second year of general improvement since the pandemic. In many cases, students in 2022/23 outperformed achievement levels from 2018/19, the last time data was collected before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite the shrinking attainment gap, however, the current levels are far from the targets set by the government when ACEL data was first introduced in 2017.

Literacy levels on the rise

Students are measured on their achievement in literacy (including reading, writing, and listening and talking).

Across all primary and secondary levels, teachers reported higher achievement.

In reading, 80% of primary pupils were at the expected level, up from 78% last year and level with pre-pandemic performance.

Writing levels came in at 75%, up from 73% and even with results from 2018/19.

Achievement in overall literacy (73%) was also two points up from last year and outperformed the 72% reported in 2018.

At the S3 stage, pupils recorded similar results. Achievement in reading (90%), writing (89%), listening and talking (91%) and literacy (88%) were all two percentage points higher than last year’s reports.

Numeracy levels highest since ACEL introduced

Primary teachers reported record attainment in numeracy since ACEL was first collected in 2016. 80% of primary students were performing at the expected level, compared to 78% last year and 79% pre-pandemic.

Secondary pupils also matched their highest achievement since 2016, with teachers reporting that 90% are performing at the expected level. This is up from 89% last year and even with pre-pandemic levels.

Has the attainment gap closed?

The current attainment gaps at the primary level are 20.5% for literacy and 17% for numeracy. Compared to recent years, this is the third time we have seen the gaps shrink since they spiked in 2021 (24.7% and 21.4% respectively).

Read more: Is attainment really at a 'record high' in Scottish schools? 

But measuring against the government's original targets tells a different story. In 2017, the government targeted a 17% gap in primary literacy by 2020. Although no ACEL data was collected that year, the actual gaps in 2019 and 2021 were 20.7% and 24.7%, respectively. 

The story is much the same for numeracy targets, where the 2019 and 2021 reports of 16.8% and 21.4% did not match the 13% rate targeted by 2020.

Although the overall attainment gaps are lower at the secondary level, the actual reports still do not measure up to the targets. 

Actual reports on either side of the pandemic were between 2 and 5 points off the government's 2020 target.

And the current rates of improvement are not on pace to meet the ambitious goal of a 5% attainment gap in both literacy and numeracy across all grade levels by 2024/25.

How is ACEL data collected?

ACEL data is based on reports from teachers, who judge whether their students have reached CfE targets for their grade level.

Because ACEL data is not wholly standardized, and because it is relatively new, it has taken some time to prove its usefulness and questions remain.

The Scottish Government has collected ACEL data every year since 2016/17, with a few notable exceptions. Nationwide school closures and difficulty gathering consistent measurements meant that no ACEL data was gathered in 2019/20.

And in 2020/21, the government opted not to collect data on special schools or S3 pupils, due in part to the added pressures of the SQA’s alternative certification model.

The impact of the pandemic is still being felt, however.

In contrast to the positive picture painted by the most current ACEL data, the most recent international PISA statistics – which measure attainment based on a sample of 15-year-olds – reported a global downward trend and showed Scotland to be part of that trajectory.

Read more: PISA 2022 Scotland education score dips but so does global average

Still, Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth said this year’s results show improvement.

“These figures show record levels of attainment across primary school level and significant improvements in secondary. I congratulate our pupils and teachers for their hard work over the last year.

“These findings are the most up to date statistics on attainment and are comprehensive across all publicly funded schools in Scotland, demonstrating a clear rise in standards above pre-pandemic levels among primary school pupils. Along with this year’s SQA results, they point to widespread rises in attainment.

“I recognise that there is no room for complacency and our programme of reform across the education and skills system will help identify where further improvements can be made and will look to drive enhanced attainment to ensure all young people meet their full potential.”

More on these results to follow throughout the day.