MINISTERS are considering plans to revolutionise testing in schools which will allow pupils to take tests when they are ready, instead of at age seven, 11 and 14.
The Government's exams watchdog has advised Education Secretary Estelle Morris to scrap the highly-pressured week of national curriculum tests during the summer term following the outcry over the strain on pupils this year.
It proposes an overhaul of the tests, introduced nearly a decade ago and sat by 1.8 million children every year.
The attempt to increase flexibility is mirrored in this week's White Paper, which says that only a core of subjects will now be compulsory for 14-year-olds who are better suited to job-related courses. From 2003 the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority plans to allow gifted pupils to take the next test up. Tests could be taken at five instead of seven and bright teenagers could sit GCSEs two years early.
At the heart of the new QCA plan is online testing-when-ready, with children sitting tests during the year rather than in a week at the end of the key stage. Tests will be chosen from a large bank of questions. Pupils' answers will determine the next set of questions. It is hoped this will prevent children from cheating. November's world-class tests for 11 and 13-year-olds in maths and problem-solving will follow the same model.
In Scotland, which has no performance tables, pupils already sit tests when their teacher says they are ready. They are expected to reach five standards between the ages of five and 14.
David Hargreaves, QCA chief executive, believes England's tests, which cost about pound;45 million a year, have a limited impact on classroom performance. Held at the end of the school year, they can only provide information to be passed to a child's next teacher or new school.
But fears have been raised that computer-based multiple-choice questions cannot test skills such as creative writing. Teachers also fear confidence in well-established pen-and-paper tests, which teachers and parents understand, will be shattered.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Tests are already criticised for not measuring enough but computer tests are even cruder. We will end up with two systems, double the work for teachers and it will be impossible to make comparisons over time."
Under the plans to give flexibility for bright pupils, high-ability pupils will be awarded a starred level, similar to the GCSE A*, on the basis of an extension paper testing what is taught during the key stage, teacher assessed tasks or a combination of both.
Fundamental changes have already been agreed for the English tests. At key stage 3, the reading and writing papers will be combined to mirror the format of tests at earlier key stages. Spelling tests at seven and 11 will stick more closely to words taught in class.
Maths tests will consist of multiple-choice questions which can be marked automatically. At key stage 1, two maths papers for level 2 and the higher level 3, will be developed.