The results will be tragic
The decision to continue with the Shakespeare test for 14-year olds at key stage 3 and the proposals for altering the set plays are presented by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority as sensible choices arrived after due consultation.
This position can only be adopted by ignoring the fundamental point that most teachers continue to oppose the test for very sound reasons, and by failing to take account of the considerable body of thoroughly researched evidence from SCAA's own evaluation studies, carried out by the University of Exeter.
The latest report concerning the tests for last year presents further compelling evidence of the problems with testing Shakespeare at key stage 3.
A prime concern is the muddled rationale for the existence of the paper at all, which produces confusion regarding how it relates not only to the rest of the English test, but to the national curriculum order itself . Paper 2 (Shakespeare) is distorting the results of the English tests as a whole.
A second major problem is the impact of the test on the nature and quality of pupils' responses to Shakespeare's plays. One of the main aims of teaching Shakespeare must certainly be that pupils appreciate and enjoy the richness of his language and drama.
The programme of study makes clear that in studying Shakespeare, pupils "should be encouraged to appreciate the distinctive qualities of these works through activities which emphasise the pleasure and interest of reading them, rather than necessitating a detailed line-by-line study".
The report comments with telling succinctness and understatement: "It was not easy to recognise which test activities emphasise the pleasure of reading Shakespeare."
Indeed the tests are producing precisely the kind of work on Shakespeare which the Order stipulates is unnecessary: "By setting specific scenes for study prior to the test, the test itself may have encouraged detailed line-by-line analysis."
Shakespeare's texts are open and inexhaustible allowing great diversity of interpretation and response. The Exeter report, however, highlights the fact that the tests are narrowing the nature of the pupils' responses and narrowing the curriculum: "There was a lack of adventurousness in interpretation and response, and a degree of convergence which is unusual even in examination conditions."
And: "The effect of Shakespeare being studied for the test is a narrowing of the key stage 3 curriculum particularly in year 9."
The difficulties with the test persist from conception and design through to assessment. Although the marking of the English tests has improved, in relation to Shakespeare the inadequacies remain, not simply from inconsistencies with individual markers but as a consequence of the marking job they are being required to complete: "Both statistical analysis of the mark data and the evidence arising from the script scrutiny suggest that the marking of Written Expression on Paper 2 is awry," says the report.
As a result of these major problems the Exeter team makes the following clear recommendation for the Shakespeare paper: "We recommend that serious consideration be given to the transfer of the assessment of Shakespeare to teacher assessment, which would allow for pupils to be assessed orally, and would permit the assessment to be more effectively placed in the context of teaching and learning."
This reasonable suggestion has been made by many organisations over an extensive period. However, none of these points are replicated in SCAA's own monitoring report covering the key stage 3 English tests, the document which has been distributed to schools.
Indeed far from addressing the recommendation in any serious way, SCAA has moved directly against it by announcing the details for the planned continuation of the test into 1998 and beyond.
It is no surprise that many teachers are now becoming cynical and frus-trated about the prospects for real change and just how much evidence would be required for SCAA to see sense over this matter.
It is unacceptable to conduct evaluation studies, which are based on the co-operation and effort of teachers, pupils, advisers and researchers and then to ignore all the evidence which is being produced by maintaining inadequate old tests and introducing bad new ones.
While SCAA continues to impose bad ideas and developments in the face not only of opposition but of all the evidence, its credibility and effectiveness as a curriculum authority will increasingly be in doubt and any consensus which has been built with teachers will be in danger of being destroyed.
Paul Higgins is chairman of the National Association of Advisers in English