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Bad marks for markers

Something is clearly amiss with the external marking of this year's English national tests for 14-year-olds. What is significant about the flood of complaints is not just its volume but also its nature.

The complaints are not from dissidents ill-disposed towards testing, inexperienced in assessment or insecure in their own standards. Some are even complaining of poor students being marked too generously. Many of the most telling objections come from those who took part in last year's closely- audited tests for 14-year-olds. Indeed, in many cases their judgments may be based on greater experience than the multitude of inexperienced markers hired by the exam boards.

For once, such disputes can be conducted on more equal terms since the marked papers are being returned to schools. And prominent among the specific complaints has been that the marking has been rigid, negative and mechanistic; penalising slip-ups and inaccuracies rather than giving credit for the quality of effort in the expression of complex ideas.

What has gone wrong? Is it simply a case of "duff markers" as suggested by SCAA's Nick Tate and by English teachers only too familiar with exam boards' frantic efforts to recruit them? If so, why have the boards' quality control measures failed to pick these up?

Or is this a peculiarity of the English tests? Is objective measurement in this subject inherently more difficult to ensure, suggesting either that it may take a few years for sufficient experience to develop or that the English results will always be more variable and contentious? If so, why have we not heard more complaints about GCSE marking in English?

Or is there a real mismatch between expectations at key stage 3? Are there different interpretations of the national curriculum requirements or of the public mark scheme for the English tests? Do those who are complaining put too high a premium on, say, response and expression or too little emphasis on technical accuracy or grammatical correctness?

Whatever the reasons, alarm among English teachers' is real and too widespread to be ignored. The use of external markers to circumvent teachers' workload objections to the test has proved a practical and public relations disaster. The exam boards will now be receiving a flood of appeals and papers returned for review right in the middle of GCSE and A-level exams and may simply not be able to respond in time to enable schools to give parents the English test results in this year's reports.

Of all teachers, those who teach English were the most reluctant about the national tests. In spite of SCAA's assurances about the reliability of the tests, now many have had their worst fears confirmed.

To restore some confidence in the key stage 3 tests SCAA must establish what has gone wrong and reassure schools that English results will be more reliable in future.

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