English papers fail to hit the spot

13th May 2005 at 01:00
Key stage 3 questions were botched again - and on the same Shakespeare play - as teachers complain of pupils left in tears

English teachers were in despair this week after complaining that tests for 14-year-olds have been botched again.

Last week's assessments, taken by 600,000 teenagers, featured a question on Macbeth which some staff said was too hard even for top-set youngsters.

Some pupils were reportedly in tears.

The longer writing task, in which pupils were asked to compile a progress report on the design of a robot, was criticised as uninspiring.

Key stage 3 English tests have been beset by problems. Last year, a string of administrative mistakes led to the resignation of Jonathan Ford as managing director of the National Assessment Agency.

Last week, pupils who had studied Macbeth had to read two extracts from the play.

They were then asked: "How does Macbeth's language show that he feels afraid but is determined to keep his power?"

The language of the question appears to have enraged teachers. One told the TES website there was "almost mass panic, with hands shooting up to say they did not understand the question".

An advanced skills teacher from Birmingham said: "Our exams officer was so disgusted... that he has written to the National Assessment Agency to express his concern that the test was flawed."

Teachers also flooded Teachit, a website for English teachers, with complaints. One wrote: "Went into the exam after 20 minutes and five of my top-band class had not written a thing and were near to tears."

One teacher said that if the question had been worded more simply, such as "what does Macbeth say to show he is scared, and what does he say that shows he still wants to be king?", there would have been no problem.

Schools choose whether to study Macbeth, Henry V or Much Ado about Nothing for the Shakespeare task, worth 18 marks out of 100.

Several teachers felt the Much Ado question, which asked what pupils learned about Benedick's attitude to love and marriage from two extracts, was far easier.

This is the second year that there have been widespread complaints about the Macbeth question. Some teachers said 2004's task would have challenged A-level students.

Some were also concerned about the reading task, which featured extracts on the history of Ellis Island, New York, from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and from an email conversation between two girls.

Huge pressure is on the NAA, an arm of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, to ensure this year's KS3 English tests go smoothly. Judging by the reaction on the Teachit site, this year's tests have only fuelled dissatisfaction.

One teacher said: "Today I was consoling kids who are crying because they think they've failed and let me down. I feel so powerless. What can I do? not " An NAA spokeswoman said: "All test questions are put through a rigorous development process to make sure they are both challenging and interesting.

This year's long writing question was very successful with the 3,000 children who tackled it during development. Our evidence shows that all of our Shakespeare questions were of equal standard."

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk


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