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Criticism of English test marks floods in

Hundreds of schools were returning their English national test scripts to the examination boards this week following widespread complaints of "negative" marking, "unfairness" and "farce".

English specialists and headteachers have claimed the marking of the tests for 14-year-olds has been too rigid. Too many bright children have been given low test levels, and some less able students have done better than their more talented peers, they claim. Also, they say the standards applied to this year's tests, marked by external examiners, were not the same as those used last year when the tests were marked by teachers and scrutinised by external examiners.

But the Government's top examination adviser, Dr Nick Tate, said: "We are not going to be panicked into action without the evidence. The exam boards have had 80 calls. Only 0.7 per cent of schools say they are appealing."

Complaints continued to flood into the offices of the boards, the exam advisers' quango, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, and The TES. The National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) claimed to be receiving a complaint every eight minutes. As frustration mounted, it seemed that SCAA faced a rebellion to match the English test boycott of two years ago.

At Devonport High School for Girls, a grammar school in Devon, headteacher Barbara Dunball, called the English key stage 3 results "manifest nonsense. " Last year more than 40 of the 96 Devonport girls who took the KS3 English tests achieved level 7, which meant they had exceeded the target expected of their age group. This year girls of the same ability were awarded only three level 7s.

Doris McGreary, head of English at Stowmarket High School in Suffolk, which in the past has scored above average, said under 4 per cent achieved level 6 and above (national average 31 per cent).

At Larkmead School in Abingdon, Suffolk, Chris Harris, head of English and an A-level marker, said he had never seen such "negative marking . . . artificially restrictive".

And at Durham Johnston comprehensive in Durham, only nine students were given level 7 and above compared to 34 in science and 45 in maths. John Dunford, head of Durham Johnston and president-elect of the Secondary Heads Association, said teachers expected broadly comparable results across all three subjects. "The marks are not a fair reflection of ability," he said, adding that the English results would be "political dynamite" in the hands of right-wingers determined to prove that English was not being taught well.

At least one school had a different story to tell. At Houghton Kepier School in Sunderland, headteacher Richard Bloodworth is returning scripts because he thinks the marks are too good. Many of his pupils have literacy problems, yet 80 per cent achieved level 5 or above. Both he and Mrs McGreary of Stowmarket believe there has been a tendency to "mark safe and mark towards the middle" with the result that less able children have done relatively well but the brighter ones have not been able to shine.

Anne Barnes, NATE's general secretary, is preparing detailed evidence for SCAA of the complaints her association has received. She will cite the case of a boy from Southwark in London, who obtained level 5 (an average grade) on the two ordinary test papers but a level 8 on the extension paper for bright pupils. Under the exam rules, his official result will be level 5, despite his success on the extension paper.

Many who contacted The TES were worried about consistency of standards. Alistair Darbey, a head of English from Stokesley in North Yorkshire, wrote: "What do we do about the fact that we are being asked to believe that the same standards are being applied each year, when clearly they are not? We got it right last year but wrong this year. How are we to feel any confidence in this system at all? . . . I want to say to my students who achieved level 4, on these tests, that they show every sign of being able to reach, at least, a grade C at GCSE, if these are the standards by which we are to judge them at KS3. After this, will they believe me?" Some schools have chosen not to tell their pupils the English results until after the appeal. Other schools have given pupils the results, but told them they are inaccurate.

But Dr Tate pointed out that the English results in last year's national tests were lower than in maths and science. He attributed the examples of poor marking to "duff markers" and encouraged those schools to appeal, but he said the mark scheme had been very carefully tried and tested - if it had been interpreted too strictly, it was the fault of individual markers.

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