The tests come against a backdrop of complaints about low expectations of 11 to 14-year-olds and an analysis of national results which reveals that many youngsters struggle with the basics. More than a third fail to achieve the target of level 5 in national key stage 3 English and maths tests.
Ministers cite surveys showing that at the age of 14 motivation falls and dissatisfaction rises. They say that for many pupils, especially boys, this is when the roots of later failure are established.
Evidence does show that levels of attainment at 14 are a key determinant of GCSE performance.
Nine out of 10 pupils who gain level 6 and more than half on level 5 go on to achieve five or more top grade GCSEs - but only 9 per cent of those at level 4 do so.
Schools agree that something needs to be done. How, though, is a question that becomes ever more crucial as they move towards a national key stage 3 strategy this September.
The pound;428 million strategy, with its catch-up classes for maths and English, aims to emulate the success of the primary literacy and numeracy strategies and raise the performance of 14-year-olds. Just by how much though is unclear. Despite promoting the move almost three months ago in the Green Paper Schools:Building on Success ministers have yet to unveil the promised "milestone" targets for 2004.
Michael Barber, the schools standards chief, claimed in The TES recently ("Word is out the KS3 strategy is a winner", March 30) that the strategy would not be boring, or be simply about targets, nor would it treat secondaries like primaries. He pledged it would offer leading-edge training, that it would be for all pupils, including the gifted, and be about spreading good practice.
But schools have serious doubts about the practicalities. They have also accused ministers of being heavy-handed and seeking to control everything.
Last week secondaries received a list of some 700 spellings that every child should know by the age of 14. They have now got around 90 pages of prescriptive "guidance" for maths covering toics such as numeracy, thinking skills and the role of information and communications technology (see story, below).
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"Change has to be introduced in a different way than in primaries. We are keen to raise achievement at key stage 3 but implementation needs to be slowed down."
The Government is keen to build on primary achievement and the strategy has been trialled in 205 secondaries in 17 authorities this year.
Sue Kirkham, head of 1,400-pupil pilot school Walton high in Staffordshire, said: "Many positive things have happened.
Her 11-18 school gained an extra pound;30,000 last year, and will get a further pound;30,000 this year for key stage 3. But there are problems.
Walton is part of the KS3 information and communications technology pilot and last week received a letter asking its head, chair of governors and three ICT teachers to attend a training course on the same day. "It's just not possible," said Mrs Kirkham, who is chair of the SHA's education committee. But Michael Barber said : "We have to build on the primary achievement and tackle the ... lack of challenge in Year 7 for some pupils.
"If all middle and secondary schools adopt the strategy with the same enthusiasm and skill seen in pilot schools, we have every reason to expect rapid and substantial progress."
Leader, 22; Letters, 25
THE STRATEGY IN BRIEF
KEY STAGE 3 GOALS By the age of 14, the vast majority of pupils will have:
* reached level 5 or above in the basics of English, maths and science.
* benefited from a broad curriculum, including learning each of the national curriculum subjects.
* learnt how to reason, to think logically and creatively and to take increasing responsibility for their own learning.
KEY STAGE 3 STRATEGY
* requires annual targets for schools and local authorities for 14-year-olds in English, maths and science.
* extends the primary strategies in English and maths into lower secondary education.
* strengthens the skills of all secondary teachers of English and maths, especially heads of departments.
* provides similar support for heads of science and science teachers.
* enables all teachers, whatever their subjects, to support literacy and numeracy.
* promotes ICT skills and the achievement of new ICT targets.
* enables pupils whose first language is not English to take full advantage of teaching across the national curriculum