A DRAMATIC decline in the number of marks needed to pass this year's national curriculum tests is unlikely to be the result of government pressure, an independent assessment expert said this week.
Instead, the reductions are likely to reflect the fact that pupils found it harder this year to score high marks.
Dr Gordon Stobart, a reader at London University's Institute of Education, was speaking after figures released this week confirmed big drops in the pass marks for both key stage 2 and 3 tests.
The number of marks 11-year-olds need to achieve the benchmark level four in the English KS2 tests has fallen from 49 to 44 out of 100.
This prompted the Conservatives to claim the results are being manipulated to allow the Government to hit its literacy targets. Ministers want 85 per cent of pupils to achieve level four by 2006, though this target was downgraded to an "aspiration" last month and moved back from 2004.
Other pass marks or "level thresholds" published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority this week show a similar pattern.
Although the number of marks required to get a level four has remained constant in science, at 40 out of 100, in maths it has also fallen, from 49 to 45 out of 100.
For KS3 English, pupils need to score only 30 out of 100 to gain a level five, compared to 35 per cent last year. The figures for maths and science also show falls.
But Dr Stobart, a former principal research officer at the QCA who carried out an independent evaluation of the 2001 tests, rejected the claims of manipulation.
He said the reductions reflected the fact that both the content of the tests and their mark schemes were changed this year.
In English at KS3, for example, many schools reported that pupils were confused by being asked to do a piece of writing in the Shakespeare paper without having to refer to any of the Bard's plays.
The KS2 English tests have also been changed, with pupils having to do two pieces of writing rather than one, and being given no choice about what to write, unlike last year. The "pass mark" for writing fell from 31 to 25 out of 50.
Maths and science at both key stages have been changed to emphasise problem-solving.
Dr Stobart said: "Level thresholds move up and down depending on the difficulty. If you change the exam, and make it unfamiliar in some way, the marks tend to go down."
Dr Stobart added that higher-ability pupils were likely to have found it harder to do well in the English tests, in which marks are broken down into a large number of smaller assessment units.
Jackie Bawden, head of testing at the QCA, said that last year, 2,000 pupils had taken this year's tests as well. The new pass marks ensured they would have achieved the same levels in both years.
She said that the Department for Education and Skills had no influence on the threshold-setting process.
Professor Peter Tymms of Durham university, said: "I think the QCA are very serious about maintaining standards. However, it is very surprising that the (KS2 English) threshold has dropped by five points this year, after only one or two point changes in recent years."
Three years ago, Education Secretary David Blunkett was forced to order an inquiry into the KS2 tests amid similar accusations of manipulation.
The inquiry found that the QCA and ministers had not tampered with the tests.