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Outrage and tears turn test into trial

Examiners accused of being out of touch. Warwick Mansell, Philippa White and Jennifer Hawkins report

Lower-ability pupils were reduced to tears by this year's key stage 3 English tests because they did not understand what they were being asked to do, teachers complained this week.

Several staff told the TES online staffroom forum that some pupils were so confused by this year's writing test, worth 30 of the 100 marks, that they put their hands up to ask for advice but teachers were unable to respond.

There was also unhappiness about a question in the Shakespeare Macbeth paper, worth 18 marks, which some teachers criticised as "impenetrable".

The National Association for the Teaching of English described another Macbeth question as the worst Shakespeare question ever.

Last week's writing paper presented pupils with a cutting from a fictional newspaper story about a diamond theft from a country house. Pupils were asked to write the first chapter of a detective novel using ideas from the article.

Some teachers said that pupils were unsure whether they were being asked to write in the style of a newspaper article or a novel. Others did not know whether they to include characters mentioned in the newspaper extract. Some teachers suggested that it was asking a lot to expect 14-year-olds to be familiar with the narrative conventions of detective novels.

One teacher said: "The writing paper was horrible. We had so many hands up and questions - none that we could answer, of course." Another said: "It seemed to be a test of reading ability - not the point of the writing paper."

Mark Green, head of English at George Green school, Tower Hamlets, east London, said that seeing a newspaper article made it hard for pupils to realise that what was required was the opening of a novel.

But some teachers said that brighter pupils had enjoyed the exercise. Katie Wignall, 14, of Lady Margaret school in Parsons Green, west London, told The TES: "I enjoyed creating my own characters."

Her friend, Natalie Webb, also 14, said: "I want to be a detective when I'm older so it was the right kind of question for me."

In the Shakespeare paper, pupils were presented with lines from Macbeth, one of three plays which schools can teach, and asked how the extracts "explore the idea that it is difficult to know whom to trust".

Susan Williamson, head of English at Dartford technology college, Kent, said: "Shakespeare was a farce. This question was very vague. I feel the examiners have lost touch with what's going on in the classroom."

Another teacher said: "It seems to me that the question was much more difficult than anything at GCSE and would have challenged A-level students."

Questions on Twelfth Night and Henry V appeared to be less controversial.

And the reading paper was much more favourably received, although there were complaints from some teachers that all three extracts were non-fiction, rather than fiction.

The maths and science tests proved less contentious, although Jenny Gow, head of science at Burnage high school for boys, Manchester, felt they were harder than GCSE because of the reading skills required.

A spokeswoman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said that the tests had been extensively trialled with teachers, and that the response had been positive.

The idea of using the newspaper extract was to give pupils ideas what to write for the first chapter of the detective novel, rather than just asking them to come up with something off the top of their head.

The spokeswoman said: "These questions are a good test of pupils' creative writing ability in relation to the levels set in the national curriculum."

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