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Low pass marks 'let down pupils'

Parents' body warns that employers will not accept 30 per cent as threshold for KS3 tests

PUPILS ARE being let down by an education system that allows them to be seen as successful despite gaining less than half the available marks in national tests, a leading parents' body said this week.

Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Asssociations, issued the warning after test figures showed that key stage 3 pupils needed only 30 per cent of the marks to achieve a level 5 in English this year.

For maths, pupils taking the harder KS3 papers could reach level 5 with just 22 per cent. Those taking the standard level 4 to 6 paper needed 39 per cent.

Mrs Morrissey said: "We are not doing children any favours with these low pass marks. It may look good for schools to have many pupils clearing these hurdles, and maybe it makes parents feel happy for their children. But when they go out to work, it is going to be picked up by employers. In anyone's book, if you have got 30 per cent of something, you have not succeeded."

However, Professor Dylan Wiliam, of London university's Institute of Education, said what mattered was the difficulty of the test questions. A doctor might be well qualified if the qualifying exam was sufficiently difficult, even if they got few questions completely right.

The bigger worry, Professor Wiliam said, was that the tests were not reliable guides to pupils' understanding. Research he published in the 1990s suggested that up to 40 per cent of pupils might be awarded the wrong levels in the tests.

Under the present system, some subjects have higher pass rates. For example, pupils need 58 per cent on the most popular science paper to gain a level 5 at KS3. At KS2, they needed 43 per cent to gain a level 4 in English, 46 per cent for maths and 51 per cent for science.

For all of these tests, the key level 4 and level 5 grade boundaries were either the same as or slightly higher than last year. The level thresholds have divided classroom opinion, with the Government pointing to the thoroughness of its standard-setting regime, which aims to hold the difficulty of the tests constant every year.

KS2 teachers logging on to The TES website are discussing the level thresholds and test marking, and most debate centres on whether or not pupils achieved level 5.

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said it was wrong to criticise the thresholds.

"The unions are invited to the meetings where the QCA sets the level thresholds," he said. "We have been satisfied year after year that the boundary that has been set for each level is the correct one."

But Mrs Morrissey is not alone in her concerns. Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, said that the thresholds called into question the meaning of official government figures. These show, for example, that 73 per cent of pupils reached level 5 in English at KS3 last year.

He said: "Maybe we are fooling ourselves if we say that a child has reached level 4 or 5 when you look at the detail of what this means. It is worrying that you can reach these levels having failed to get more than half the marks available".

The Mathematical Association has also voiced concern that pupils can be certified as successes despite getting relatively few questions right. Maths academics say it is better for pupils to work longer at demonstrating their understanding of particular topics than to take a test, pass with under 50 per cent correct and move on.

Marking time

KS2 threshold for level 4 English 43 per cent (2006, 43); maths 46 (46); science 51 (50)

KS3 threshold for level 5 English 30 per cent (2006, 30); maths 39 (37); science: 58 (57)

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