They've made a right Basil of marking

16th May 2008 at 01:00
The events surrounding this year's national test marking are beginning to make Fawlty Towers look like a well-run hotel
The events surrounding this year's national test marking are beginning to make Fawlty Towers look like a well-run hotel. The story so far goes like this. Hundreds of key stage 2 and 3 teachers are still waiting to hear where they will be trained as markers only a day or two before it is due to happen. When details arrive, the choice of venue seems random. Live in Peterborough? Then you may be asked to go to Southampton. Teachers try ringing the helpdesk: it is constantly engaged. But somehow the training for KS3 happens. Next, teachers have to mark sample scripts online. Almost all the English markers fail because the computer seems not to have noticed that marking Shakespeare is different from marking fractions. ETS Europe, the contractor running the tests, reprograms the software and runs the sample marking again. On The TES website, several markers say: "I quit."

It may sound like farce, but the reality is serious. For KS2 and 3 teachers, this is the most stressful time of the year. For months, they have worked hard to prepare their pupils for these tests. Now they find that the marking process is a shambles. Even at its best, testing is an inexact science. The pressure on teachers from league tables and performance management is so great that they deserve the fairest, smoothest and most reliable marking arrangements that we can muster.

This year's changes were supposed to improve the system's speed and efficiency. Even if the marking is completed on time, as the National Assessment Agency promises, question marks over the results will remain.

The latest problems with marking are a reminder of the strains on a system that has to cope with more tests than in any other country in the western world. They come as a measured report from the Labour-dominated Commons select committee on children, schools and families says that the tests must change, that teaching to the test throws the results into question and that they are stifling the creativity of teachers and children.

The roll call of those joining the refrain against the present regime becomes more impressive by the day: the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust, the exam boards and the head of the Government's exams quango. Are you listening, Mr Balls?

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