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New demand to scrap testing system

Specialist schools director says assessment is in a 'fine mess' - as MPs press for inquiry.National tests should be scrapped and replaced with testing a small sample of pupils each year, a pamphlet from one of the Government's most influential organisations will say next week.

GCSEs could go too, says the paper published by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which represents 2,700 schools, because the qualification may be contributing to post-16 drop-out rates. Radical reform of tests, targets and league tables is needed because flaws in the current regime are now recognised by most in education.

"The whole teaching profession agrees that in the matter of assessment we are in a fine mess," says the paper. It argues for heads to start a national debate on the subject. It further suggests that the pressure over results is leading some schools to engage in short-term measures to raise exam performance.

The National Governors' Association will join the debate at its conference tomorrow, calling for a review of the system and suggesting hospital-style star ratings for schools. An Ofsted survey of pupils' views has also found that exams cause them more anxiety than any other aspect of school life (see panel).

This week Barry Sheerman, chairman of the new Commons children, schools and families committee, promised to press on with its own inquiry. This was begun under the committee's predecessor body, the education and skills committee, which this spring took written evidence from across the education community on the subject.

Mr Sheerman said: "The issue of testing and assessment is central to the future of education in this country. It would be wrong not to continue this inquiry when we have already taken the evidence."

The lead author of the pamphlet, which is being sent to schools, is Professor David Hargreaves, former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and an SSAT associate director. He writes with two others, Chris Gerry, a head, and Tim Oates, director of research at Cambridge Assessment, in a personal capacity.

The paper comes after specialist school heads raised concerns about assessment at a seminar at Cambridge University in March. It catalogues the side-effects of league tables and targets, including the anxiety pupils face. It also argues that teaching to the test is narrowing the curriculum.

"Government advice is that test practice should be kept to a minimum," the paper says. "Clearly, ministers lack insight into the impact of their policies on teachers' practices."

The Government's focus on C-grades as minimum performance at GCSE is dissuading lower-achieving pupils from staying at school post-16, it adds. The paper puts forward two alternatives to national tests. Both are based on testing only a sample of pupils every year.

Government plans to try tests for seven to 14-year-olds which will be held every six months and be taken when teachers judge the pupils ready, could add to the testing burden, says the 50-page pamphlet. It urges heads to go beyond the focus on statistical targets, embracing and evangelising "a wider moral agenda that moves beyond the so-called 'standards agenda'".

In September, The TES revealed how, of 52 submissions to the education and skills committee's assessment inquiry, only the Government's was unequivocally in favour of the status quo.

Ministers are sticking to the trial of progress tests, which will begin in almost 500 schools next month, as their favoured method for investigating the testing regime.

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