SNP ministers and exam chiefs have been accused of presiding over a "grotesquely unfair" assessment system which has school pupils "stressed to the point of being ill".
Although teenagers across Scotland were promised they would not have to sit exams this year after the immense disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, teachers and students claim the 'internal assessments' imposed in their place are exams in all but name.
And because schools across the country are assessing pupils at different times, it has emerged that students who have already sat the ‘exams’ have been sharing information about the questions on social media.
The plan was designed to avoid a repeat of the results day chaos seen last August, when pupils had their results arbitrarily downgraded by a Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) algorithm that disproportionately affected poorer students. Usual tests were cancelled at short notice due to Covid-19.
It resulted in the SNP being forced into an embarrassing u-turn following an outcry from students, while Education Secretary and deputy First Minister John Swinney came close to losing his job.
But the new grading system, which SNP ministers and exam bosses claim is based upon teacher assessments and “backed up by evidence”, involves “optional secure assessment materials” for schools which include question papers and marking instructions.
Pupils, teachers and parents have complained of severe stress caused by the assessments, which are being conducted under exam conditions but without study leave or an evenly-spread timetable.
As a result, some teenagers are sitting as many as three assessments in one day while still having to attend classes.
Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Nicola Sturgeon insisted grades would be allocated by teacher judgement after being challenged about pupils facing the exam-style assessments.
The First Minister said she will "listen to concerns and anxieties of young people and teachers" but said that teacher judgement needed to be backed up by evidence of pupils' attainment.
Asked whether her government owed students an apology, Ms Sturgeon did not apologise but said she understood it was an “anxious time” for young people, and emphasised that the SQA “oversees the certification process”.
Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, described Ms Sturgeon’s response as “totally inadequate” and described the assessment system as “grotesquely unfair”.
“It’s placed huge pressure on young people, families and teachers right across the country when we were explicitly told this would not happen,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“It’s a case of the government sleepwalking into a crisis after last year’s debacle. The really unfortunate thing is they were warned about all of these issues, with questions put to them in Parliament by a variety of people and these questions were ignored.”
Mr Marra pointed out the “broader concern” now is that while last summer’s chaos was the result of a “mutant algorithm” that “could be turned off”, this year there are “thousands of different practices across the country” which will be harder to correct.
“The First Minister’s response doesn’t reflect what’s happening in schools across the country,” he added. “It beggars belief her inbox won’t have multiple instances of this being cited to her.”
Seamus Searson, head of the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association, has warned the system is likely to result in a “barrage of appeals” in the summer “when youngsters don’t get the results that they deserve”.
"Teachers are at their wit's end," he told BBC Radio Scotland. "They are listening to pupils and engaging with them and get an understanding of what level they are at, but that can't be put down on paper sometimes."
The SQA provoked further anger on Tuesday after it sent a letter to schools warning that "appropriate penalties" should be applied to pupils in breach of exam rules, but these should be used by individual schools and not by the exams body.
It comes after reports of an "SQA black market" on the social media site TikTok, with pupils "begging" for questions to be shared before they sit their assessment.
The letter, from director of qualifications development Dr Gill Stewart, said: "We are taking this matter very seriously and have contacted the centres to ensure that the posts are removed as soon as possible, and that any candidate malpractice concerns are managed locally within the centres."
But Mr Searson dismissed the letter as “a load of nonsense” and accused the entire SQA process of “becoming farcical” while urging the exam body to “stop digging”.