Cheating 'rife' in national tests

16th June 1995 at 01:00
Diane Hofkins reports on the allegations of malpractice that have prompted an official investigation. Senior Government officials are investigating irregularities in examination scripts and claims of cheating in the first national tests for 11-year-olds.

Allegations include cases of schools coaching pupils, setting exam questions as homework, writing answers on the blackboard and allowing pupils extra time to complete test papers.

The investigation has prompted calls for the politically sensitive national tests, which could be used to compile controversial league tables as early as next year, either to be tightened up or replaced by moderated teacher assessment.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority is investigating irregularities in up to five schools. The suspect scripts have been identified by external markers of the key stage 2 tests, who are due to finish their work on June 27. The authority has also received about a dozen letters alleging cheating.

Rumours of malpractice are widespread within primary schools and are worrying school inspectors. One senior inspector told The TES: "It's definitely rife."

Nicholas Tate, SCAA's chief executive, said the claims were being taken seriously, but he would be "very surprised and very concerned" if there had been malpractice. "We have every confidence in teachers' professionalism, " he said.

Fears that malpractice may be widespread could undermine confidence in the new tests. Ministers are committed to using them as the basis for publishing primary school performance tables, though no date has yet been set.

The National Association of Head Teachers, which played a key role in persuading the Government to delay their introduction, has joined in the chorus of concern. Arthur de Caux, the union's assistant general secretary, said: "The fact that people are talking about it so much means something is going to have to be done. If it's really serious it does invalidate the results."

Assessment specialists agree that the system is open to abuse because the pressure of "high-stakes" testing is combined with uncontrolled exam conditions. The Government cannot expect reliable results without test conditions, they point out.

Whereas GCSEs, A-levels, and 11-plus exams are properly invigilated under test conditions with scripts only opened on the day, the KS2 tests may be opened a week in advance, to make arrangements for special needs pupils, and may be conducted by class teachers under a variety of conditions. Cash and responsibility for auditing KS2 and 3 tests have been taken away from local authorities.

"There is a contradiction between wanting something that's highly reliable and something that fits into the culture of not frightening little children by giving them tests," said Professor Jim Campbell of Warwick University.

Jeff Hale, head of assessment in Gloucestershire, said that while he had no documentary evidence of cheating, heads had reported their unease about the way the tests had been conducted. "There's a systematic opportunity for things to go wrong," he said.

While secondary schools have been conducting public exams for decades, national tests have been introduced to junior schools with league tables in mind. "It's been put to schools that this is going to sort them out," said Mr Hale.

Writing in this week's TES, the staff of Moredon county junior in Wiltshire say they have learned of cases where children were given extra time to complete the questions, where children were set a homework question on percentages which "co-incidentally" appeared on the maths paper, and of pupils being given the story title in advance "so that they could prepare the story at home with parental help". They add: "If teachers and parents are to have any faith in the results of testing - especially when national reporting comes into play - further thought will have to be given to making the 'playing field' as level as possible."

Cheating will be hard to prove. One school being investigated by SCAA had a number of scripts with very similar wrong answers. SCAA said this could be the result of malpractice, but it could stem from overly-tight coaching using last year's pilot test papers.

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