Fourteen-year-olds in Wales responded positively to national curriculum tests, sat for the first time in most schools last summer, but many did not know what they were for, say Welsh school inspectors.
Attendance was above average in most schools during the test period. Some abler pupils missed out, however, because "a small minority of schools" had policies of not entering any children for the higher tier tests in maths and science, and very few schools entered candidates for the extension papers in any of the core subjects.
A report on key stage 3 assessment and testing from the Office of Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in Wales says that 80 per cent of secondary schools carried out the tests in English, maths and science. But a boycott by the National Association of the Teachers of Wales meant that few schools carried out tests in Welsh, and few Welsh medium schools carried out tests in any subject.
Despite the boycott, pupils were well-prepared for tasks and tests in Welsh. Some teachers, however, regarded preparation as "an intrusion on normal year 9 teaching and an inappropriate base for GCSE work".
The inspectors said that year 9 teachers were getting better at assessing pupils' work, but that results were not used enough in planning future work.
They said mock tests, although useful in preparing pupils, were time-consuming and occasionally resulted in undue disruption of teaching and learning, while end-of-year exams provided little additional useful information on progress and attainment.
The majority of teachers were content with the quality of tests and marking in maths and science. Most English teachers were not unhappy with the English tests, but many criticised the marking. They were not convinced the marking gave adequate credit for perceptive and original responses.
The reduced workload brought about by external marking was welcomed, however.
Most Welsh schools reported to parents on national curriculum levels only in the core subjects, while using grades or percentages in other subjects. This is "confusing for pupils and parents", the inspectors say.