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Test leaves pupils bored by the Bard

Nicholas Pyke reports on claims that a report on Shakespeare at key stage 3 was suppressed by a quango

Officially-commissioned research attacking this month's Shakespeare tests as dull and pointless has been suppressed by the Government's curriculum quango, according to angry English teachers.

Independent assessors from Exeter University found that pupils taking the tests produce rote-learned answers to Shakespeare questions with no evidence that they had enjoyed the plays.

They criticised "a lack of adventurousness" and "a degree of convergence which is unusual even in examination conditions", in their scrutiny of the 1996 tests commissioned by the School Examination and Assessment Authority.

Indeed, the great emphasis on Shakespeare produced by the tests might not even be lawful, they said, as it has no legal basis in the national curriculum orders.

But these conclusions were left out of an official summary sent to schools - a move condemned by the National Association for Teachers of English (NATE) and the National Association of Advisers in English. Instead, the criticisms were buried in a 141-page technical report for which teachers had to write off and pay.

"None of these points was replicated in SCAA's own monitoring report which has been distributed to schools," say the advisers. "It is no surprise that many teachers are now becoming cynical and frustrated about the prospects for change."

Key stage 3 tests in Shakespeare and grammar remain one of the few outstanding disputes between SCAA, which sets the tests, and the teaching profession.

NATE has been pressing hard for an end to the written Shakespeare tests. It wants them replaced with teacher-assessed project work. Schools started the key stage 3 tests this week.

For its own part, SCAA has vigorously defended the Shakespeare tests, saying they have produced outstanding work from pupils.

The Exeter researchers, writing in Evaluation of Key Stage 3 Assessment Arrangements for 1996, made a number of highly critical observations. They said that schools are over-preparing for the tests and that "the effect of Shakespeare being studied for the test is a narrowing of the key stage 3 curriculum". Nor did the test appear to encourage pupils to enjoy the playwright's work, even though this is an explicit aim of the curriculum: "It was not easy to recognise which test activities emphasise the pleasure of reading Shakespeare," they said. Rather than encouraging pupils to think about plays, schools produced rote-learned answers: "As with the 1995 tests there were a high number of convergent readings of the set plays.

"Within the scrutiny it was possible to isolate clusters of scripts which probably came from pupils in one class, and in some cases pupils had clearly been over-prepared.

"The assessment of Shakespeare through examination remains a source of concern for teachers. Its validity in terms of the national curriculum and the assessment objectives of Paper 1 is uncertain, and the tendency to convergent reading witnessed in 1995 was replicated in 1996." Indeed, the researchers urged SCAA to consider the proposals backed by NATE.

"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."

Despite the extent of these criticisms they made no appearance in the version of the monitoring report sent to schools. "This suggests that pupils haven't really had an opportunity to reflect for themselves," said Anne Barnes, general secretary of NATE. "Much of the point of studying Shakespeare is to enjoy it. Instead, they are trudging through it in a very dull way."

Paul Higgins, chair of NATE, said: "It is unacceptable to conduct evaluation studies and then to ignore all the advice and evidence which is produced by maintaining inadequate old tests and introducing bad new ones. Consultation begins to look very much like a bogus exercise conducted for political reasons", he said.

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