By Gary Eason
Education editor, BBC News website
England's exams regulator is advising ministers to scrap their plans for a compulsory computer test for teenagers.
Increasing numbers of pupils have been "guinea pigs" for the new test
The aim is for all 14-year-olds to do the online test in ICT (information and communication technology) from 2008. It is currently being piloted widely.
But ministers have questioned the need for another statutory test, and the QCA watchdog has now decided it is an unnecessary "burden" for schools.
It says the test should be just one tool teachers use to assess progress.
School leaders are delighted.
In its 14-19 Education and Skills white paper, the government announced that, subject to successful piloting, a statutory Key Stage 3 test in ICT would start in 2008, and schools' results would be published in the league tables.
But the head of the National Assessment Agency, David Gee, said there were new ministers and senior officials at the Department for Education and Skills "questioning" whether the test should be made statutory.
Mr Gee recommended to the QCA that the test should be used "as an integral and standardised tool for informing teacher assessment".
It would be just a component of a student's overall mark.
The minutes of the QCA board meeting in November say its members agreed "that it was not necessary to burden schools with an additional statutory test, considering that ICT was something that should be embedded into other subjects".
The board felt the work that had been undertaken should not be lost and agreed that the test should indeed be used to inform teacher assessment.
It sent a formal advice letter to the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, recommending that the Key Stage 3 ICT test should not be made statutory.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson's department said it had received the advice and would make a decision in due course.
School leaders are delighted at the development.
The head of the education committee at the Association of School and College Leaders, John Fairhurst, said: "We don't rate the test very highly at the moment.
In the test, pupils face a limited series of practical ICT tasks
"The National Assessment Agency has written a glowing report of what it's doing, but that doesn't reflect what is obvious on the ground which is that it's much more complicated and not working very well."
Mr Fairhurst, who is head of Shenfield High School in Brentwood, Essex, said the test interface was unlike standard Microsoft or Apple-Mac programs.
So it had taken his school's ICT advanced skills teacher 50 minutes just to figure out how to work it, he said.
As that was half the test time, "needless to say he didn't finish it".
THE CHANGING NATURE OF ICT
The test has been intended to form part of the suite of external exams that pupils take at the end of Key Stage 3, when they are aged about 14.
The others are in English, maths and science.
Back in 2001, the then education ministers also asked for an ICT test, having set targets for pupils' attainment in the subject too.
The online test that was devised has been tried out in an increasing number of schools.
One highly experienced head of a secondary school ICT department, Roger Distill, told the BBC News website he thought the imposition of the test was "outrageous".
He said that over the years his job had been to teach students the growing number of skills and concepts which had emerged in the rapidly developing field of ICT.
Initially it had been very technical, with a large element of programming.
Then came applications such as word-processing, databases and spreadsheets, then presentation, painting and drawing packages and later still e-mail and the web.
With the national curriculum had come the requirement for an awareness of the intended audience in the creation of digital products, and a focus on fitness for purpose.
"All of this was good," he said.
'Out of date'
But it was also complex to develop and it became obvious that, although ICT was developing at a tremendous rate, the curriculum was "dragging its heels - it simply could not keep up".
He said: "We were forced to teach things, the relevance of which was now becoming questionable, while emerging technologies such as digital video production, animation, music sequencing and digital image editing had to be ignored."
The two 50-minute online test sessions assessed "the old spreadsheet, word-processing and presentation applications which I was teaching 15 years ago, plus a bit of e-mail".
But to recoup the cost of developing the test, the National Assessment Agency had said that it would continue "in its current form" until 2013.
"One does not need to be a computer geek to realise that the technologies in the real world will have moved on amazingly in that time, while education, as usual, gets left behind as we continue to train our students in the old and limited techniques required to succeed in the test."
When he heard of the QCA decision, Mr Distill said he doubted there was time to stop the test going ahead in 2008.
"There are a lot of people with a vested interest in the success of the test," he said.
"We shall see, but I'm not terribly optimistic."