The system for awarding grades is a “world away” from last year’s results scandal, Nicola Sturgeon has insisted despite claims from opposition leaders that youngsters face a “second exams crisis”.
Thousands of pupils saw their results downgraded last year, with the subsequent outcry forcing a U-turn from ministers and their original marks reinstated.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said this year’s methods for awarding marks are “more sleekit”, as he told the First Minister: “Once again young people will lose out, based solely on where they go to school.”
Mr Ross claimed many councils are taking “historical attainment data” into account when teachers decide what results pupils should get.
Awards are being given by teachers as the coronavirus crisis has forced the cancellation of formal exams for the second year in a row.
But many pupils still had to sit assessments this year, with questions also being raised about an appeals system which means youngsters could see their results downgraded.
Raising the issue at First Minister’s Questions, Mr Ross said: “The life chances of tens of thousands of young people are at stake.
“The 2021 exams crisis has already started. But this Government acts as if nothing is wrong.
“Pupils were told ‘no exams this year’, except everyone knows they have sat exams in all but name.
“Parents were promised no historical data would be used, except we know that is exactly what is happening.
“Teachers were told grades would be based on their judgment alone, except there is an algorithm lurking in the background.
“Young people feel cheated by another deeply unfair system that judges them on where they are from, not how they did.”
He told the First Minister that a recent Education Scotland report revealed three-quarters of councils are using historical attainment data when deciding results.
Mr Ross said this means that in Inverclyde, there were “data analysis meetings” taking place before grades were submitted, Edinburgh City Council is “making adjustments based on previous attainment data”, and East Renfrewshire “has a checklist to make sure that teachers compare this year’s grades to the last three years”.
He added: “This is the same shambles as last year, it is just more sleekit. Because instead of the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority) marking pupils down at the end of the process, the system will force teachers and schools to do it first.”
Ms Sturgeon insisted that is “simply not the case”.
She added: “When the provisional grades are submitted to the SQA they will not be changed because of a school’s past performance.
“That is a world away from the situation last year, where algorithms and the past performance of schools automatically changed the performance and the grades of some schools, that is not happening.
“This is a system that is based on teacher judgment, evidenced by the work that pupils have actually done throughout the year.
“Awards this year are based on teacher judgment, teachers arrive at those judgments by looking at the attainment, the work, that pupils have done.
“There are no past results or algorithms that dictate what an individual learner’s grade will be.”
She said a school’s results could be “reviewed” if they appear to be “out of step with previous years”.
But the First Minister insisted this is simply a quality assurance check and “not the operation of an algorithm automatically downgrading pupils as would have happened last year”.
She said a “key part” of this year’s system is that if teachers “stand by the result they gave, that result stands, it is not changed”.
She also faced calls from both Mr Ross and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar to guarantee that no pupil who appeals their marks will have that result downgraded.
A so-called “symmetrical model” is being used for appeals, which can see results changed either up or down – with Ms Sturgeon saying this system had been used in previous years and is also being used in England.
Mr Ross said the system means students will have to “roll the dice with their future”, while Mr Sarwar said Scotland is in the midst of a “second exams crisis” as he called for a “no detriment” appeals system to be implemented.
The First Minister said she recognises there are “different views” on how the appeals process should be conducted.
But she added: “On balance, in common with other parts of the UK and past experience, it has been decided to adopt the symmetrical process. Because that is fair because it is based only on the attainment of young people.”