Way off the mark

Tes Editorial

The outside assessment of key stage 3 tests is a 'farce that amounts to a national scandal', says an incredulous head of English.

A fortnight ago our school received the results of the key stage 3 tests in English, with our students' answer booklets. We received these results early - seven days before we were scheduled to. They made fascinating but alarming reading.

The fact is we cannot believe them - they have no credence with us as experienced teachers. They expose the marking of these tests for what it is - a farce that amounts to a national scandal. Standards? We'd like to see a few!

This is the marking that we were promised would be delivered by professionals, carefully trained for the task, marking that would be carefully checked and moderated.

One hurried glance through the mark sheet and we were howling in hurt, in incredulity. We had no level 7s no level 7s although the results our students receive at GCSE are amongst the best in the country. No level 7s although we had considered multitudinous entries for the extension paper (an option we waived.) No level 7s although we have brilliant students, whom we have nurtured, cajoled, and yes, loved, for a number of years. No level 7s, although two of our team have examined and moderated CSEs, and GCSEs and taught A-level, and we know a level 7 when we see one.

Other results were, well, bizarre. Students we would only put in for GCSE if a life depended on it were award- ed level 4. Students who have risen wonderfully well to the challenge (sic) of key stage 3, but who are capable of writing inspired nonsense under pressure, got level 5s. Flattering for them, but a trifle improbable.

As head of English, I went home disconsolate. That night guilt set in. I felt guiltier still when I was tempted to do what I have always despised others for doing: make comparisons. My temptation? I rang our sister school, only to find that their results were brilliant. Constellations of level 8s! Galaxies of level 7s! Universes of level 6s! I was devastated; I had failed the children, failed my department and failed the school.

Reader, I rallied. Having rallied I read the work of our one student who was one mark away from a level 7. I read her Shakespeare paper, on which she had dropped only one mark. It was scholarly in a way that my own work as a pupil only began to approximate as I approached O-level. Her writing calmed me and soothed me. I knew then that I was right. She is a level 8. I turned to a few bizarre results. Three level 5s. I compared the papers and analysed the second page of their second paper. Part of each page is reproduced here for you to compare.

Pupil A has joined-up handwriting of a good standard; Pupil B joins up but not beautifully. Pupil C hardly joins at all.

A has one spelling mistake on the page (repitition). Pupil B has 15 (for example, muinte, fanncys, Juite). C, who writes half as much as the others, has eight mistakes (for example, vilent, earlyer, motague).

These differences are glaringly obvious and yet for "spelling and hand-writing" all three papers score the same and are awarded three marks out of five.

On to written expression. Judge for yourself. Somewhat discrepant? And yet they all rate the same - five marks each out of 10. How about knowledge, understanding and response? Pupil A who writes sense - elegantly if occasionally misguidedly - rates least with 12 marks out of 25. Pupil B who wrote the sentence (sic) "Because one muinte he fanncys Rosaline and the next minute he fannys Juite" scores 13. And Pupil C who writes such profundities as "When he meet Juliet he becomes very clever when he kissed her" rates highest with 15 marks. By now my guilt has dissipated. It is the marking that is at fault, not me. But the question marks remain.

Where do we go from here? Do we push our children through yearly exams, drill them, give them "mocks" - what an apt word that is. Do we cowtow to the great beast of accountability and standards and all those other abstractions that induce paranoia in the profession?

Well, I look at this marking - and I snap my fingers. Abandon life for this?

I call now for a proper pilot, properly-conducted and properly-moderated. After prose has been massacred in the name of the national curriculum - and now the innocents are going the same way - I call for justice. Otherwise boycott is the word of the future. Because the word of the present is sham.

The author is head of English in the Midlands

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