Government advisers are to try out four new ways of testing 14-year-olds' understanding of Shakespeare next term. If the pilot is successful, the current unpopular Shakespeare test could be replaced by one of them in 1997.
Three of the versions could be graded by external markers, while the fourth allows teachers so much flexibility that a common marking scheme would not be feasible.
Although English teacher associations believe the tests should be marked by teachers, some unions have complained of work overload, and 13,000 external markers were engaged for this year's key stage 3 tests in order to buy peace.
Teachers object to the current Shakespeare test, saying it does not give pupils a chance to show what they really know and can do.
The alternatives would move at least a small segment of the national curriculum examining structure closer to the Scottish system, which has long been advocated by teachers south of the border. In Scotland, primary teachers choose from a bank of tests, and administer them when they think the children are ready.
The first Shakespeare test version would be similar to this year's externally-set timed exam, but teachers could administer it when they wanted to, rather than on a set day. The second proposal is for a bank of centrally-set papers, from which teachers would choose one focused and one broader paper.
The third approach would operate along the lines of GCSE English coursework, with teachers setting questions against criteria drawn up by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
Under the fourth, teachers would set their own tasks and draw up their own mark schemes, based on the national curriculum programme of study and level descriptions. However, consistency would be difficult to achieve, and some teachers have expressed concern about workload.