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Whose mark is on this failure?

Where does responsibility rest for what looks to be an expensive debacle over the key stage 3 English tests? As initial incredulity at the scale of the problem gives way to speculation about its cause, early suspicion points to the exercise having unravelled at the marking stage.

Rumours abound as to markers' lack of experience and expertise. Returned scripts reveal widespread slavish adherence to the mark scheme and failure to use the exemplar material. There is deep scepticism as to the quality and extent of supervision received by markers.

Exeter University's remit from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to evaluate the tests has already been extended. A fairly routine exercise looks increasingly like a disaster inquiry. Detailed answers are required about the initial pattern of results, the numbers in the review procedure and the modifications made to results.

More critically, any restoration of teacher confidence in the tests depends on unambiguous answers to three questions: What proportion of the markers were specialist secondary English teachers with recent experience? What training did markers receive? And what supervision was there of the markers?

Only detail will carry conviction. It will not do to say that recent secondary English teaching experience was one of the criteria. How many markers met this criterion?

Inevitably, of course, the Exeter evaluation will be of the success or otherwise of a policy implementation, rather than the policy itself, upon a mechanism rather than the enterprise giving rise to it. The assessment of reading and writing is complex. It does not come cheap.

These tests are the latest attempt to get valid, reliable assessment of English by misguided means. It is important, therefore, to keep in focus exactly where the final account for the fiasco should be sent. Sanctuary Buildings in this case should provide no sanctuary.

Meanwhile, various parties, some of them blameless, are paying a heavy price for this venture. Some 600,000 bewildered 14-year-olds and their equally bewildered parents and teachers are wondering why English levels are lower than in other subjects, and why the English levels bear so little relation to pupils' ability. English teachers feel the good faith with which they met the Dearing Curriculum Review and waited patiently for the Review of Assessment has been betrayed.

Many have worked with SCAA to improve the quality of these tests. The fact that the 1995 tests are so much better than those which provoked the 1993 boycott, and that teachers have striven to prepare their pupils adequately for them, merely increases their frustration.

No doubt some of the cost will also land at the exam boards' doors, along with the deluge of returned scripts likely to engulf them just at the height of the GCSE and A-level season. Hard on the heels of last year's contentious GCSE English results, this first exercise in open accountability is unlikely to increase public confidence How long will it be before the demands for similar openness, with scripts for GCSE and A-level English being returned, become irresistible?

Its front-line position will ensure that SCAA too will collect brickbats. This is understandable without being welcome. That body has worked hard and successfully to establish a more positive professional climate. It may influence, but it does not make policy. No, the "onlie begetter" of this KS3 tragi-comedy is to be found elsewhere.

Last summer, the Secretary of State removed the requirement for any statutory audit of teacher assessment. Schools were exhorted to participate in voluntary arrangements, but no funding was available to support them. Enormous sums, however, were found for the external marking of tests.

This year's teacher assessment results in KS 3 English are likely to be more secure than the test results, given the quality of test marking. But without moderation there can be no proof. There is a grim irony now to Dearing's recommendation that test and teacher assessment results have equal standing. Government policy has ensured the unreliability of both. If there are to be tests, they should be marked by classroom teachers and supported by rigorous moderation procedures for both the tests and teacher assessment.

Such a policy, however, would require a surer understanding of both the cost and the value of assessment than currently pertains.

Dr Alastair West is chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English.

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