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The best of tests;Opinion;Letter

YOUR editorial "Testing times" broadly concurs with criticisms of the national curriculum tests as "vague, unreliable and of less use than proper standardised tests" (TES, December 18).

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority welcomes well-informed debate about the tests. But debate is difficult in the absence of evidence, and you cite none. The criticisms you quote may have been valid in the early days of the tests, but they have been successfully addressed - in some cases three or four years ago and are now outdated.

First, the supposed vagueness of the information provided by the tests. As well as the national curriculum levels, the tests provide schools with pupils' numerical scores and (at seven and 11) with standardised scores which allow teachers and parents to make precise comparisons between performance and national norms.

QCA also publishes detailed reports based on analyses of large numbers of completed papers, setting out the strengths and weaknesses of pupils' performance and key lessons for schools.

Second, the reliability of the tests. Every single question in the tests is rigorously pre-tested with thousands of pupils to ensure it is pitched at the correct level. So too are the final papers. These are anchored to the standard of the previous year by comparing the results of a sample of children who have tried out both sets of tests. Any necessary changes, for example the introduction of mental arithmetic in 1998, are carefully piloted before introducing them. This makes the tests among the most carefully developed school examinations in the world.

Third, the alleged superiority of "proper standardised tests". The national tests are standardised and (at seven and 11) provide standardised scores.

Tests that are exactly the same year on year do exist, but if they were administered to all pupils in all schools they would become widely known and results would soon reflect familiarity with the questions rather than real levels of attainment. Such tests could not form the basis for a national testing system designed to provide diagnostic feedback and to hold all schools accountable.

Establishing the national tests has admittedly been a difficult process and there is always room for improvement. But it is in large measure because of the tests that we now know as much as we do about the widely varying performance of schools. The tests have played a major role in raising expectations. A striking feature of the current educational scene, for which schools deserve huge credit, is the new determination to improve on past performance, and to keep on doing so year on year. This shift would have been difficult to achieve without the information the tests provide.

Dr Nicholas Tate Chief executive QCA 29 Bolton Street London W1

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