ALLEGATIONS that this year's English tests for 11-year-olds were rigged to help the Government meet its ambitious literacy targets were without foundation, an independent inquiry has concluded.
The three-week investigation found no evidence that the Government or its officials had tried to boost this year's test results by lowering the pass mark, the inquiry team said.
But they recommended a thorough review after the 2002 tests on which Education Secretary David Blunkett's literacy and numeracy targets are based.
Because of the "high stakes" attached to the 2002 tests, the existing procedures should not be changed until after the target deadline, the panel said.
The investigation was launched last month after claims that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the quango responsible for the tests, had lowered the pass mark from 51 per cent last year to 47 per cent this year. The pass mark has since been raised to 48.
Inquiry chairman Jim Rose, formerly head of inspection at the Office for Standards in Education, said: "We could find no evidence whatsoever that the QCA or its agencies, let alone ministers or officials at the Department for Education and Employment, sought to influence the tests, or the arrangements governing them, in order to meet national targets in English and mathematics for 2002."
However, the five-strong team found "surprising" weaknesses in the test despite an extensive development process and checking procedures. The key stage 2 English test was weakened by unclear illustrations and ambiguous wording, teachers and markers told the inquiry team.
Teachers should be more involved in test development because they are most likely to know what children will find potentially ambiguous or confusing in the way that test questions are framed, the panel found.
The team was also concerned that QCA officials debating where to draw the pass mark were allowed to consider how many more children would be pushed over the "pass" threshold.
To the surprise of the inquiry team, officials also discussed whether each boost in results would "seem plausible" compared to previous years' results.
Test markers were put under too much pressure by the tight deadlines needed to ensure that parents got the results before the end of the summer term.
Their report said: "The present timetable puts pressure on markers partly to give schools and others as much time as possible to use the results of the tests. This trade-off threatens the quality of marking and needs to be reviewed."
Nicholas Tate, QCA chief executive, writing in The TES today, said: "This was not the first time national tests had been the victim of misreporting and headline-seeking. Nor was it the first time I had despaired of explaining to people who wished to believe otherwise that tests vary slightly in difficulty from year to year and that to maintain a consistent standard pass marks will also need to vary.
"The report vindicates both Government and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. There was no political interference. There was no "fiddling" with the difficulty of the tests to improve the results."