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Number of tests to be cut back

Exam chief wants more internal assessment and random sampling of pupil performance. Warwick Mansell reports

THE Government's exams watchdog is considering drastically reducing the test burden on schools in the wake of last year's A-level re-marking furore.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is to suggest cutting the number of tests pupils take and increasing assessment within school by teachers.

Among options the regulator is considering is replacing some national tests with a sampling system. This would mean pupils' performance being assessed in only a proportion of schools each year.

Officials at the QCA are working on the proposals, which are likely to be finished within the next month and put to former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson's working group on the future of 14-19 qualifications.

Mr Tomlinson's own report on the A-level fiasco concluded last month that the assessment burden on schools was too high and ministers have asked him to look at how it could be reduced.

Mr Tomlinson has already proposed dropping one of the three assessment modules at AS-level, but the QCA's study will go far further than that.

The Secondary Heads Association is calling for the GCSE and AS-levels to be graded by internal assessment. It wants national tests at seven and 14 scrapped in favour of random sampling tests - a proposal also put forward last year by the Liberal Democrats.

A national sampling system would revive memories of the Assessment of Performance Unit, which used to sample a small proportion of pupils every year as a way of gauging national academic performance. The unit was phased out by the Conservatives in the 1990s following the introduction of national tests and league tables.

Dr Ken Boston, head of the QCA, told a conference last week on the future of A-levels that the current system of exam delivery was "not sustainable".

He could not guarantee a smooth operation this year because of the sheer number of entries and the difficulties of recruiting the 50,000 examiners needed.

He said: "The total assessment load for students can and should be reduced across the full age range, and a substantial part of the assessment should be externally-moderated internal assessment."

Dr Boston was aware that the Government had to ensure that cutting this load did not compromise its ability to monitor students' performance.

But this was possible. Dr Boston said the QCA is interested in sampling systems used in the United States, in which only a proportion of pupils are tested to assess the quality of education across states or the nation.

One method, he said, might be to assess the performance of children in each school every three years.

Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, is also urging ministers to look at how the assessment load can be reduced while still assuring the public that standards are being maintained.

John Dunford, SHA general secretary, said: "There is widespread recognition that there is too much testing. The only question is where it should be reduced, and how."

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