The future of England's testing system is in doubt after two major exam boards ruled out taking over the marking of Sats from next year.
AQA, the largest GCSE and A-level board, and OCR, the third largest, have both told The TES they would refuse to take on the marking contract. And Edexcel, the second largest board, which lost out in bidding for this year's amp;#163;156 million contract to American-owned firm ETS Europe, this week refused to confirm whether it would consider taking on the troubled job.
A refusal from England's boards would leave the Government with the seemingly unenviable choice of either continuing with ETS, which has been at the heart of this year's marking debacle, or getting civil servants to run the marking system.
The latest problems come as secondary pupils await the outcome of their key stage 3 Sats, provisionally set for next Tuesday.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: "There will be a public outcry if ETS is allowed to keep the contract."
ETS is in the first year of a five-year marking contract, but it is unclear whether it will be allowed to continue. It has been condemned for its management of this summer's tests, with the results of thousands of pupils still outstanding this week.
The NAHT said it beggared belief that KS2 tests results, which showed marginal improvements in the numbers hitting target levels, were published at all this week amid concerns about marking quality.
Other problems reported by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have included botched arrangements for training examiners and thousands of markers' emailed queries going unanswered.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which oversees the testing process, said last week it was "deeply concerned by the continuing failure of its contractor ETS to get results back to schools". It has stripped ETS of responsibility for reviewing test marks which are challenged by schools. This is now being organised by civil servants at the National Assessment Agency, a division of the QCA.
The QCA is in legal discussions with ETS over its contract, which includes penalty clauses said to run into tens of millions of pounds for poor performance and is likely to include the possibility that ETS could be fired. However, it remains unclear whether legally it will be possible to end its relationship, or what compensation might then be payable to ETS.
If the QCA sought this, Edexcel, and its owners Pearson, the publishing company, could be in a very strong position as it would be the only remaining player.
An exam board source said: "The Government is likely to be caught between a rock and a hard place. Does it stick with ETS, with all its problems, or go for Pearson, which effectively might be able to name its price?"
Robert Coe, director of Durham University's Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre, said ETS continuing to run the test marking would be hugely damaging for the system's reputation. "If the company that has made such a mess of things this year was allowed to continue, it would be very hard to defend publicly," he said.
A QCA spokesman said it was unable to comment while contractual discussions were ongoing.
An inquiry into this summer's events is being conducted by Ofqual, the test regulator. Kelly Southcott, head of communications at ETS Europe, said: "ETS welcomes the inquiry. I do not think it would be appropriate to comment any further about keeping the contract into 2009."
If you need something punchier, she also said: "We are unable to comment on the contract at all."