Row over dumbing down of English test

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Is the exam for 14-year-olds just a glorified grammar exercise that no longer takes literature seriously? Julie Henry reports

THE Government's exam watchdog has been accused of "dumbing down" new English tests for 14-year-olds.

Critics say that the revamped exam no longer looks for literary appreciation and instead favours bite-sized questions that merely test knowledge of grammar.

The attack comes as the National Union of Teachers seeks support from other unions for a possible boycott of national tests.

Wholesale changes have been made to the key stage 3 test for 2003. Sample questions have just been sent to schools - too late, many claim, to prepare 600,000 teenagers in time for May.

According to the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the changes will mean greater consistency across age groups in how English is assessed.

But Dr Bethan Marshall, of King's College, London, said the authority appeared to have given up on trying to get a serious response to literature from teenagers and had reduced the exam to an exercise in grammar. Writing in this week's TES she said: "Any book, play, poem or article is turned into a grammar primer as texts are trawled for some rule of punctuation or example of a subordinate clause."

The 75-minute reading paper will now consist of three text excerpts and 15 questions. The answers are all short paragraphs, worth up to five marks. Pupils used to answer two or three longer questions.

Even where the new questions ask for critical responses to text, said Dr Marshall, inflexible marking guidelines gave banal and sophisticated answers the same score (see box below). "This is not a valid assessment of how good a child is, particularly at the top end. It is dumbing down and is about training kids to hit markers and jump through hoops," she said.

James McNallie, head of English at Aylestone school, Hereford, said the changes made the KS3 test more like KS2 but made the jump to GCSE even bigger. "They might be answering bite-sized questions in Year 9 but within a couple of months we will be preparing them to write for 35 minutes."

There are suspicions that the new exams are designed to make it easier for schools to boost scores . Ruth Moore, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "The English test is an example of trying to come up with a test that helps league tables rather than learning. The QCA claims the tests are diagnostic but the only thing they diagnose is the ability to do the test. I think there is now real scope to question the whole issue of tests."

In a recent NUT survey the vast majority of teachers said they would support a boycott of tests. The union has written to other teacher organisations for their backing. John Bangs, NUT head of education, said:

"There is an alliance building against tests, particularly at key stage 1."

This week, leading academics suggested constant testing kills motivation, particularly among girls and low-achievers.

Another voice and Leader, 20

Bethan Marshall, 21

Letters, 22


The new KS3 exam has been attcked for valuing banal and sophisticated responses to texts equally. The sample question below is based on text from Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein".


In the first paragraph, how does the way the final sentence is written build up tension? (1 mark)


Award 1 mark for a comment relating to any of the following features of the sentence

* the sentence builds up slowly to the main actionthe moment when the creature comes to life

* the creature comes to life at the end of the sentence

* the punctuation (semi-colons and commas) extendsdraws out the sentence

* the large number of clauses and phrases helps to build up tension

* the phrase 'by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light' holds up the narrative, so increases tension

* the first part of the sentence sets the scene; the second part deals with the action of the monster

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