Teachers are calling on the Government to rethink the testing regime at 14 after close to 200 schools appealed against last term's key stage 3 results.
The controversial national curriculum tests remain as unpopular as ever among teachers, who say marking is inconsistent and inappropriate, and the tests undermine pupils' confidence. The National Association for the Teaching of English is calling on the Government to include a teacher assessment, to make the tests more representative of pupils' ability.
But the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has defended the tests,pointing out that this year's slight increase in the number of appeals brought it "nowhere near" the number in 1995, when about 1,000 schools asked for re-marking. "It is not clear that there is a problem with key stage 3 assessment," a spokesman said. "We are not burying our heads in the sand and we are not complacent."
NATE general secretary Anne Barnes said her members had deep anxieties over the qualifications of examiners. She said: "It is a matter of public concern. There is strong evidence that the markers are insufficiently experienced to do the job."
But SCAA insists all examiners are either current English teachers or have taught in the past three years, and the marking procedure is more rigorous than that of any other examination, with every mark checked three times. A fourth check was introduced this year for one in four of the 2,500 markers.
But some teachers remain unhappy at what they see as extraordinary discrepancies between pupils' abilities and test results.
Graham Finch, head of English at Pershore High School, Worcestershire, said: "The marking scheme cannot distinguish between levels. It lumps them all together. The national curriculum lays down all these level descriptors, then a series of tests produces marks bear-ing no resemblance to those levels - it's a complete mismatch. "
The tests have produced varying results at the school, with no pupil achieving level 7 in 1995, 30 reaching the grade last year and seven this time around. "It's inconsistent," said Mr Finch. "What does it achieve? It either tells us what we already know or it shows its own inadequacy. We have to skew the Year 9 timetable to go through Romeo and Juliet line by line and the children get worried about it. I don't know one English teacher who approves of the tests."
He said many schools failed to apply for remarking because of the work involved in assessing texts for resubmission. "We did that two years ago. It took hours but we got a complete remark, " Mr Finch said. This year three candidates of widely varying ability were all marked as level 5.
Bob Bibby, a freelance education consultant and part-time lecturer in education at the University of Birmingham, is researching English teaching as part of his PhD. He found problems with national curriculum test results at three of the four schools he randomly selected for study.
He was surprised to find wide variations between test results and GCSE grades at one Midlands grammar school, where 24 per cent of 14-year-olds gained level 7 in their tests while 67 per cent of the equivalent cohort achieved grade A or A* at GCSE.
The pattern was repeated the following year, when slightly fewer than one in three of those tested were graded at level 7 and three out of four GCSE candidates achieved the top two grades.
"All the schools said the tests were interfering with the curriculum and some children were losing confidence in themselves because of the results, " he said.
Ms Barnes said the Shakespeare element of the tests was causing particular concern, with teachers claiming some questions were easier than others. "That is always a problem with English exams but some markers appeared to be much more knowledgeable about the plays than others," she added.
A SCAA spokesman said that since separate grammar, spelling and punctuation tests had been dropped, no decision had been made in response to calls for a teacher assessment element to the tests. But he hinted that classroom materials for testing Shakespeare, to be issued to schools in a few weeks' time, might form the basis for a revised format.
In the meantime, schools should go through returned papers with pupils, to identify and correct mistakes. "Schools that do not carry out analysis can only disadvantage their pupils," the spokesman said.