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Returning to sender

David Hawker explains why SCAA will return this year's marked test papers to schools. This year's national tests for 11 and 14-year-olds will be externally marked in a move to reduce their teachers' workload. At first sight the logistics of the tests appear daunting: in 25,000 schools, 1.3 million pupils with 150,000 teachers will submit nearly 8 million scripts to 13,000 external markers.

But far from being daunted, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and its Welsh counterpart have decided to send the marked scripts back to the schools they came from. This reflects our concern to ensure that the introduction of external marking should not result in any loss of value of the tests as a tool for improving standards.

Our view is that, since these are school-based tests rather than public examinations, they should provide immediate feedback with the pupils' scripts returned as soon after marking as possible. SCAA has tried to keep the operation streamlined and free from bureaucracy. Clearly, there is no point in freeing teachers from the burden of actually marking key stage 2 and 3 tests if the administration of external marking consumes nearly as much time and effort.

Returning the scripts is a significant initiative. Generally in Britain, evidence of marking is kept confidential. Until recently it was rare even for mark schemes to be made public, let alone the work of the markers themselves. Hitherto, New Zealand has been the only country to return marked papers to candidates - a move which resulted from the country's Freedom of Information Act. It has been a surprising success which allows clients to exercise effective quality control.

The number of appeals against results has gone down significantly since the introduction of the scheme, but appeals are more often successful since they are based on hard evidence. The New Zealand Qualifications Authority claims that the quality of marking is now higher, there are fewer wrong results, and clients are generally happier.

SCAA hopes it has approached the introduction of external marking in a similarly positive spirit. Given the demand from teachers - particularly in secondary schools - to have the tests marked externally, SCAA has wanted to make it a genuinely responsive service to schools. All the decisions made in designing the system have therefore been aimed at helping them.

At the school end, the aim is to keep form-filling to a minimum. The central document in the external marking process is the mark sheet. This will be the only piece of paper other than the scripts themselves, which will pass between schools and markers.

Schools have been invited to send in a list of their Year 6 or Year 9 pupils, so that marksheets can be pre-printed with the pupils' names. Almost 90 per cent of key stage 2 schools and 80 per cent of key stage 3 schools have taken up this offer. The rest will receive blank mark sheets for completion themselves.

So in May, after the tests have been taken, the scripts and marksheets will be packaged up to go to the marker. How will they get there? In public examinations, the school pays its own postage. But these are national school tests which every pupil takes as a legal requirement. Postage will therefore be free. SCAA and the GCSE boards (who are acting as external marking agencies in 1995) have arranged with Parcel Force to use its Datapost service. Schools will simply have to ring a Free-phone number for a Parcel Force van to pick up their test scripts. Delivery to the marker is guaranteed next day.

In the marking itself, the aim has been to ensure that it is carried out as accurately, consistently and speedily as possible. All markers attend a one-day standardisation meeting but are first expected to trial-mark some sample scripts taken from the pre-test- their accuracy will be appraised at the meeting. Nobody will mark papers without attending the standardisation meeting.

As soon as possible after receiving the first scripts from schools, markers will be expected to send a sample of their marking to their supervisor who will check it and determine whether they are marking to the required standard of accuracy. If necessary, supervisors will call for a second sample, and in extreme cases can recommend that a particular marker should be removed.

Under the supervision of their team leader, markers will fill in the results on the marksheets, and return the scripts and marksheets to schools - again using Parcel Force - about four weeks after the tests have finished. All markers will be required to get a third person to check their arithmetic and sign the marksheets before they are returned to schools.

What are schools likely to do with the test results when they get them back? They have a legal obligation to report the results to parents by the end of term. Some may wish to do no more. Others may want to look at the scripts in detail to gain information about their pupils' performance, and about the standards achieved by the school in the subjects tested. SCAA is currently looking at ways of improving useful feedback from the tests.

The prime purpose of the tests, however, is summative - to give a definite and objective level for each pupil's achievement at the end of the key stage. Scrutiny of the marked scripts, and cross-checking against the mark schemes, will reassure both teachers and parents that the level is correct. The openness of the marking system is a powerful form of quality assurance.

If, however, a school feels that a mistake in the marking has resulted in a pupil being given a wrong level, it will be able to request a review. The procedure for this is set out in the two booklets which have been sent to every school on administrative arrangements for testing the two key stages.

The booklets are a prelude to the tests themselves. Schools will receive their packs of tests by the end of this term (except for the key stage 2 English tests, which will arrive early next term).

At the end of April, schools will receive their marksheets, Parcel Force labels, and school record forms to send in their results at the end of the process. The tests take place in May.

The system should serve the teachers, not be a new imposition. Through our review of the tests this year, we will aim to find out whether we have succeeded in this. And in late autumn, we will send all schools an account of how the tests worked this year, so that everyone can judge the results.

David Hawker is SCAA's test development manager for key stage 3

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