I have no confidence in the process," says Mick Murphy, head of Claregate Primary School in Wolverhampton. "It has broken down completely."
At the end of last term, Mr Murphy appealed against marks that 29 pupils were given in the key stage 2 writing test. This term, he heard that only three had had their marks increased; 18 had their marks lowered.
"There is no appeal process after the reviews and if, in our professional opinion, there is still a significant wrong, then our professional opinion should count," he says.
Mr Murphy is not alone: 150 miles away at Our Lady Immaculate RC Primary in Chelmsford, Essex, Adrian Hayes, the school's head, has been firing off emails - some in bold type - challenging the review results. He expected more than half of his pupils to get level 5 in writing, but only 15 per cent did.
"I paid for three days' supply cover for teachers so they could come out of the class and remark these papers," he says. "We asked someone from the local authority to come in and help. When we got the scripts back, they had simply transcribed every mark. There was no sign they had even been looked at."
David Mewes, head of Cadland Primary in Hampshire, is teaching union NAHT's national council member for Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands. He has now heard the same story dozens of times.
"Schools are judged on these test results," he says. "Heads do lose their jobs. There may be more to it than results, but results are used as a lever to move heads out of employment."
The NAHT has said it will take up the issue with Ofqual, the qualifications regulator that promises to "ensure that children, young people and adult learners get the results their work deserves". The watchdog estimates that hundreds of heads feel their appeals were unfairly rejected.
The furore around this year's KS2 tests will not be welcome after the near collapse of the system in 2008, when thousands of pupils' results were delayed and scripts went missing or were sent to the wrong place. An inquiry by Lord Sutherland blamed both new contractor ETS and the then Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). Ken Boston, former chief executive of the QCA, resigned. The contract with ETS was ended and exam body Edexcel, which had run the tests previously, was brought back in to take over.
The debacle increased the pressure on a system that has been heavily criticised for years. Critics say the high-stakes tests narrow the curriculum and that fundamental reform of the system is needed. Last year, the Government announced it would drop tests at age 14. It then set up an expert group on assessment to look at future options.
Teaching unions the NAHT and the NUT both passed resolutions at their Easter conferences vowing to take joint action to boycott the tests if they were not scrapped. When the expert group reported after Easter, it said English and maths tests should stay for 11-year-olds but those for science could be discarded.
Against this background, about 577,000 pupils across England sat down in May to do their writing test - a report about trainers for the local sports shop manager. The completed papers were duly sent off for marking. But there were some snags.
For example, it emerged that some good markers were being mistakenly stopped. Then it was decided that some markers should continue, even though their margins of error were beyond what was normally acceptable.
But at least this year the papers were returned to schools on time.
In August, the provisional national results were published. They showed that reading and writing scores had both dropped. Each year, schools request reviews of the marking. The number of pupils and papers is so vast that it is quite possible for more than 1,000 English papers to go up a level, as they did in 2005, and the overall result remain unaffected.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority (QCDA) is currently preparing a report on how many reviews have been requested and how many have been successful. A spokesman said that the marker panels used for reviews are drawn from the most highly rated and experienced markers. They have the final word. Although schools can appeal once more, they can only complain about the procedure, not the marks.
So while there was some poor marking and there were appeals that were successful, the marks are only as good as the mark scheme.
Earlier this year, markers grumbled about confusing guidance and heavy workloads. They said that attributing problems to "below par" markers was naive. On the TES online discussion forums, Pip_D wrote: "The English mark scheme and additional guidance that markers received in abundance was the main thing that was substandard this year. To blame skilled and experienced markers for failing to accurately and consistently apply a deeply flawed scheme that was riddled with anomalies is, frankly, ludicrous."
Angela Rideout, curriculum adviser for English in the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, says: "A proportion of our schools have had cause to submit marking reviews and have been fairly unhappy, to put it mildly, about the outcomes.
"I've been into the schools and looked at the work with the headteachers. You can see quite clearly that these children are operating at a higher level than they've been awarded. But when you look at the mark scheme and task design this year, a child operating at level 5 is not going to be awarded level 5 if they do something a bit creative or innovative.
"I know talking to colleagues in other authorities that they have similar situations. I am sympathetic. The papers come back, the heads look at them and say, `This is level 5 work - how can it be judged at level 4?' But they are not getting a successful review because all the review process does is check whether the mark scheme has been applied correctly. If you think the mark scheme is flawed or any task is flawed, the review can't help."
This year, the exemplar in the mark scheme awards top marks to a child who uses a suitably formal style and technical language in their report on trainers. Another pupil loses a mark for not emphasising their final point - the price - sufficiently.
But the problems in the current debacle could represent much wider issues for the future, according to Professor Peter Tymms, director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at the University of Durham.
"Writing tests do generate a lot of uncertainty," he says. "A child may be working at one level, but on the day, they may produce a piece of work that is judged at another level by someone else. It's inherent and something we have to live with.
"The tests take a long time to prepare and the mark scheme is done carefully, so this seems very strange. If there are discrepancies between an official mark scheme and teacher judgment, it raises questions about the single-level tests that are coming in. That system is based on trusting teachers. It is based on the teacher's assessment being right."
How to request a review
There are three types of review: clerical, individual and group.
- If a school believes that the mark scheme was incorrectly applied for one or more pupils (but fewer than 30), an individual review is the most appropriate action.
- A review should be requested only if it will result in a change of level for that pupil.
- Identify which question or writing strand is to be checked.
- Print off results from the QCDA, complete the two-page form giving your reason for the request, and enclose the original script.
- Do not annotate the script or use sticky notes as this may lead to it being refused.
- Send the request by post. The charge is pound;6.50 per pupil per subject. This cost is waived if the review is successful. Schools are invoiced at the end of the process.
`It's an annoying, upsetting and stupid system'
Jo Ward, literacy and assessment coordinator at Spring Bank Primary School in Leeds, sent back 19 writing papers but only one went up a level - because of the correction to a clerical error.
"This was such a clever class," she says. "We have over 50 per cent at level 5 maths, over 50 per cent level 5 science and 77 per cent level 5 readers. Then we had 7 per cent - just two children - who had level 5 in writing. It just doesn't make sense.
"We are going to take this further," she says. "There are two things we can do: complain to Edexcel about that specific marker or complain to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority about the process. We will take it as far as we can."
Michael Brawley, the school's head, adds: "The teaching assessment in all other areas in science, maths and reading coincides with the test scores and did so last year. Everything about this indicates the error and mismarking lies with the external examiner. It's an annoying, upsetting and stupid system."