This year's English test for 11-year-olds is under suspicion after claims the standard was lowered. Sarah Cassidy reports
3AN independent inquiry is to investigate this year's English tests for 11-year-olds after accusations that the pass mark had been secretly lowered to help the Government meet its ambitious literacy targets.
David Blunkett is said to be furious that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority reduced the threshold for reaching level 4, the Government's required standard for 11-year-olds, laying it open to charges that the tests were fixed.
He has ordered the appointment of an independent panel to investigate the standards of this year's papers and restore public confidence in the tests.
But officials at the QCA, the quango which runs the tests, are confident that standards have been maintained.
The English national curriculum test in reading, writing and spelling was taken by 600,000 pupils last month. Scripts are currently being marked and schools are due to get the results before the end of term.
The results are of particular concern for Mr Blunkett, who has staked his career on ambitious literacy targets based on the tests for 11-year-olds. He has said he will resign if 80 per cent of 11-year-olds do not reach the required standard by 2002. Last year the proportion was just 65 per cent.
Ministers hope an inquiry will reassure the public that politicians play no part in changing pass marks, which are based on advice from academics at Britain's largest educational research centre, the National Foundation for Educational Research.
In 1997 pupils needed at least 52 marks out of 100 to reach the required government standard, level 4.
Last year the threshold fell to 51 and this year it was cut to 47 per cent. The threshold for level 5 has also been cut from 70 to 67 and the mark needed for level 3 reduced from 28 to 26.
But QCA officials defended their test system and denied any attempt to manipulate the results.
The 1999 English test was piloted last year when it was taken by 1,300 of pupils who were about to sit the 1998 test. The NFER checked each pupil's results and adjusted the level boundaries to ensure standards were maintained.
The new thresholds were set in the autumn but only became public after examiners were sent marking guidance last week.
Seamus Hegarty, NFER director said: "It is preposterous to suggest there is any kind of fiddle going on. It emerged from our pre-testing that the 1999 test was significantly harder than last year's. There is no conspiracy, this was just a straightforward annual technical adjustment."
A QCA spokesman said: "The pass level has gone down very slightly this year because the NFER advised us that to keep the level threshold at the same standard of performance the mark should be lowered to 47 rather than 51 as last year.
"Because test questions must change every year it is impossible to set tests at exactly the same level, which is why we have to make these kinds of adjustments every year."