Fewer than three quarters of pupils passed their Highers this year for the first time since the new qualification was brought in.
Of the around 186,000 entries for Higher awards in 2019, approximately 139,000 achieved A, B or C grades – a pass rate of 74.8%.
This marks a drop of 2% on the year before and the lowest attainment rate since 2015, when a new Higher qualification was introduced.
Thousands of school pupils and students across Scotland have received their exam results on Tuesday morning, with more than 60,000 candidates opting to get theirs by text or email.
The SQA has reminded mobile phone users to ensure theirs are charged, have credit on them and that they’ve registered the right phone number.
Education secretary John Swinney said people would “question the robustness of our assessment system” if pass rates only ever went up.
The attainment rate for National 5 has increased slightly (0.7%) on last year to 78.2%, but for Advanced Higher it is down around 1% to 79.4%.
The improvement in National 5 includes an increase of 1.5% in passes for English and a 0.8% rise in Maths.
However, at Higher level, there was a 2.7% drop in the pass rate for English, down to around 73% and a 2% fall in Maths passes, to about 72%.
Overall, the number of candidates for Highers is down around 6000 from the 192,000 recorded in 2018, while Advanced Higher entries are around 23,500, falling from about 24,300 last year.
There has been a sharp uptake in entries for National 5 qualifications, with around 288,500 taking courses in 2019 – up nearly 7000 on the year before.
In 2019, around 52,500 students achieved an A grade at higher – a rate of 28.3%, nearly identical to last year. There were small declines in the number of candidates getting Bs and Cs.
More than 54,000 skills-based qualifications have also been achieved – nearly double the figure in 2012 – which the Scottish Government has hailed as evidence of the “wider range of choice”.
The education secretary said: “Congratulations to the pupils who have worked so hard and achieved so much this year.
“Thank you to all our teachers, lecturers and SQA staff for their dedicated support throughout the past twelve months.
“These are a strong set of results which show a degree of year-on-year variation expected in a high-performing education system with credible assessment.
“I am pleased to see an overall rise in the pass rate for National 5 with increases in passes for Maths and English.
“At Higher level we have seen a welcome upturn in the collective number of passes for the sciences – something we have focused our efforts on for some time.”
Swinney continued: “Our learners now have a much wider range of choice than ever before, allowing them to find the route into employment or further education that is right for them.
“There has been a sustained increase in the number of skills-based qualifications, with 54,406 awards achieved this year, more than double the figure attained in 2012 and a rise of over 4000 awards on last year.
“These qualifications provide our learners with the vital knowledge and experience specifically valued by employers.”
On Higher passes, he said: “While three-quarters of Higher candidates gained a pass at A-C, there has been a fall in the overall pass rate.
“This year for the first time we saw the removal of unit assessments at Higher level, a move that was broadly supported by the education sector.
“If the pass rate only ever went up people would rightly question the robustness of our assessment system.”
Swinney added: “Our planned review of the senior phase of Curriculum for Excellence, announced earlier this year with the backing of the parliament, will help us to better understand how the curriculum is being implemented in schools and identify any areas where we can collaborate with the education system to further improve the quality of education for our pupils.”
Opposition parties also congratulated pupils and thanked their teachers, but accused the government of failing them.
Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary Liz Smith said: “John Swinney has made a great deal in recent years about the Higher being the ‘gold standard’ of Scottish education.
“That claim now looks very hollow given further drops in pass rates, and it comes at the same time as last year’s improvement in the Advanced Higher has been reversed.
“The whole structure of the Curriculum for Excellence has been brought into question by these results.
“We have known for months that subject choice has been squeezed and that there have been deeply worrying downturns in some key subject areas which have a major impact on the economy.”
She added: “Mr Swinney has persistently refused to listen to what teachers, parents and young people are telling him. These results shame that complacency.”
Scottish Labour’s education spokesman Iain Gray said: “We want to have an education system where all young people can achieve their potential, however the trend of falling attainment in Scottish education for the last few years is now the norm.
“These results show a fourth year of falling attainment in what the government calls the ‘gold standard’ Higher qualification.
“Years of sustained cuts to schools, thousands of fewer teachers and the narrowing of the curriculum are failing our young people.”
He added: “John Swinney has been warned year after year that these are the real issues facing our schools but instead he focuses on unwanted and unneeded governance ‘reforms’.
“It is long past the time he took his failings seriously and urgently tells pupils, parents and teachers what he intends to do to reverse these trends.”
SQA chief executive Fiona Robertson said: “Qualifications play an important role in allowing young people to pursue their ambitions, whether that be continued education and training, or entering into employment.
“At the SQA, we’re encouraged by learners achieving awards through a wide variety of routes.
“We are proud to offer a broad range of qualifications which ensures educational attainment is as accessible as possible.”
If you received your results today, however you did, helpline staff will be on hand to offer advice and information on all the options and opportunities available to you.