Marking fallout far from over

25th July 2008 at 01:00

The chaos surrounding the marking of this year's national tests is threatening to develop into a full-blown political crisis. As the school holidays start, tens of thousands of test papers have yet to be returned to schools, and teachers are spending their break checking scripts for marking errors and preparing appeals.

Since The TES first reported two months ago that the system was in disarray, the Government has seemed powerless to sort out the mess. What began with botched training and inadequate support for markers has ended in lengthy delays and shoddy marking, which threatens to undermine confidence in the validity of this year's results. Even worse from ministers' point of view, the scale of the failure raises questions about whether the country's assessment system is getting seriously out of control.

Such questions should be addressed by Lord Sutherland, the former head of Ofsted, who has been asked to chair an inquiry into why this year's results were not delivered on time. His inquiry is likely to conclude that ETS Europe, the company given the amp;#163;156 million contract to improve the speed and efficiency of the marking, is primarily responsible for the debacle. Put simply, it failed to deliver what it promised. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is also likely to come in for criticism, first for awarding ETS the contract and then for failing to ensure it was carried out properly.

Ministers should not be blamed directly for delivery failures. Their culpability lies at a political level: they are responsible for the testing system - and that needs to change. Lord Sutherland's brief should be widened to look at the whole testing structure, which has become far too cumbersome and expensive.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, must be hoping the controversy will die down now that schools have broken up and MPs are off on their own summer break. But this crisis is far from over. Should Lord Sutherland recommend that ETS be replaced with another contractor, it will be months before new arrangements are established - and who is to say that they will be any better? If the whole testing edifice is not to be brought crashing down, we must set fewer external tests and place more reliance on assessments by teachers.

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