PLANS FOR the computerisation of national curriculum tests are in disarray following the abandonment of the pound;26 million launch of the first national on-screen assessment, test insiders say.
Ministers were warned more than two years ago about serious problems with the key stage 3 information technology test, but only scrapped it as a compulsory assessment last week.
Now the test - which was five years in development and hailed as the future of assessment less than six months ago - is struggling to win acceptance from teachers, even as a voluntary assessment. Some are writing to their MPs demanding that "heads roll" over the time they have spent trialling the new exams.
The test would have been the first on-screen assessment to have been taken by all 600,000 pupils in a single year group.
It was highly innovative. Instead of tests marked by examiners, the computer itself tracked how children used the software, then reached a judgment on their level.
Since 2004, the test had been used in a growing number of schools. Last year, around one in four pupils, in half of all secondaries, took it. This year, every school was to run the test, before it became statutory in 2008.
But it has been dogged by problems.
Aside from many schools having difficulties installing and running it, The TES understands unpublished evaluation reports for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) questioned its design. In particular, it was thought that there was insufficient scope for higher-ability pupils to demonstrate their capabilities.
A source close to the QCA's internal evaluation of the test said: "We had grave concerns from the outset about the integrity of the assessment model." The source added that the authority had convened a meeting of assessment experts last autumn to discuss the test and none of them believed the assessment mechanism worked.
With half of all schools still not signed up to the tests by last year, it was thought that ministers decided to abandon them as a statutory test, rather than risk their failure in 2008.
It is understood that they were concerned about the number of changes planned for 2008 - dubbed "meltdown year" - when specialised diplomas will be launched and major A-level reforms are scheduled.
Less than a year ago, Isabel Nisbet, the QCA's director of regulation, told a conference on the future of testing that the technology test was the "main driver of change" on e-assessment. The authority had hoped that national tests in maths and science would be assessed on-screen as well.
The technology test was also seen as the best way to check that schools had a good technical infrastructure in place. That will not be possible now the authority faces a battle to persuade staff to use the tests even voluntarily to support their own assessments.
Martin Ripley, who led the development of the test until leaving the QCA last year, said its demise left big questions over the future of e-assessment.
"Who is going to make this thing work as an optional test?" he said. "What about the other benefits: that it would transform ICT teaching, that it would improve the ICT infrastructure in schools? Where is the vision now? What is the next stage (for e-assessment)?"
Mike Rumble, QCA curriculum manager, said that the development work had not been wasted, and schools would continue to gain from using the test information to support teacher assessment.
Meanwhile, teachers are split over running the tests this year. Derrick Graham, head of ICT at St Leonard's Roman Catholic comprehensive in Durham, said he would not do so unless the tests were changed substantially.
Another teacher wrote on The TES online staffroom that the abandonment of the statutory test had been greeted with "whoops of joy" in staffrooms. It was doubtful many schools would choose to run them, the teacher said.
At least three staff were writing to their MPs to complain about the botched implementation of the trial and call for changes at the QCA and RM, the computer software giant that developed the test.