Page last updated at 13:25 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 14:25 UK

Delays hit pupils' test results

boy taking test
Millions of scripts have to be collected and sent out to markers

More than a million school children in England aged 11 and 14 will get their "Sats" results late this year.

Delivery of the national curriculum test results to schools, due next week, has been delayed by administrative chaos for at least a week.

Markers have been warning for months of problems at ETS, the firm handling the process this year for the first time.

The National Assessment Agency says the 8 July deadline will not be met. The government is to set up an inquiry.

In a letter to the chairman of the Commons schools select committee, England's Schools Secretary Ed Balls said the delay was unsatisfactory and "clearly unacceptable".

Teachers being signed up by the company to mark the test scripts began complaining about administrative problems months ago, and a lack of response from the company's telephone helpline.

'All tests affected'

The volume of complaints rose in May, when the training process began, and again when many test papers were delivered to markers' homes late or not at all. Some even received batches of the wrong scripts.

Questions were asked in the House of Commons and the qualifications authorities said steps had been taken "to get things back on track".

But a letter to Mr Balls from the head of the fledgling independent regulator, Ofqual, Kathleen Tattersall, now reveals: "As you know, earlier monitoring had indicated that marking was not progressing smoothly."

And now England's National Assessment Agency (NAA), which oversees the testing, has said that as of Thursday 10% of the Key Stage 2 tests - taken by 10 and 11-year-olds at the end of primary school - had not been marked.

The process of marking Key Stage 3, the tests taken by 13 and 14-year-olds in the third year of secondary school, was said to be even less complete.

The problems afflict all three test subjects - English, maths and science - but are said to be worst in English.

Andy Latham of ETS Europe
Andy Latham of ETS says lessons will be learnt
The NAA has said there is no issue with the quality of the marking, it simply has not been done in time.

It said schools would continue to receive marked scripts back in the post, but the online publication Key Stage 2 results would be delayed until 15 July.

Marking of Key Stage 3 results would not be complete by then, but availableresults would be released by the end of thatweek so as many schools as possible had them before the end of term.

"The main causes of this delay are the lateness in the completion of the marking process and a series of technical issues," the NAA said.

"This is a serious failure by ETSEurope for which we apologise to schools, pupils and parents."

But John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers claimed: "The number of errors in the system are enormous."

Apology

Schools Minister Jim Knight told BBC News he had been aware of the warnings.

"I have had regular meetings with the agency responsible. They've given me consistent reassurance that they would be able to meet the 8 July deadline," he said.

"In the last couple of weeks, they've expressed concerns they wouldn't be able to for the Key Stage 3 English - but it's only in the last two days that the story changed dramatically so that we lost all confidence that we would be able to meet the Tuesday 8 July deadline."

Shadow schools secretary Michael Gove said he had warned the government about the problems a month ago.

"Ministers cannot evade responsibility for the damage done to the credibility of Britain's exam system," he said.

The head of the marking project at ETS, Andy Latham, apologised for what had happened and said he was disappointed by the delay but it had to be seen in context.

"For me the single most important thing is to deliver high quality, accurate marks to the students and that's what I'm focusing on."

It would not happen again, he promised.

Three-year contract

There have not been problems with the controversial Sats on quite so widespread a scale before.

In 2004 the Key Stage 3 English results were eventually issued three months late - after an extended deadline had been missed - and the then head of the NAA resigned.

ETS Europe was awarded a five-year 156m tests marking contract by the NAA a year ago. It has not yet commented on the latest developments.

The tests are unique to England. The results serve as a record of attainment for the children and sometimes as a basis for setting in future lessons.

But they are regarded as "high stakes" primarily because schools' average results are published in government performance tables - loathed by teachers.

This prompts claims that teachers "teach to the test" as a consequence, thereby narrowing the curriculum.

A Commons select committee has expressed concern that the inappropriate use of national tests could be damaging.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families is piloting a possible replacement in the form of "single level tests" that children would take to confirm their teachers' assessment that they had reached a higher national curriculum attainment level.

But it says testing will stay as an important guide for parents to how well their children and local schools are performing.

And it says statistics show that Sats results are an important indicator of how well children will do subsequently in their GCSEs and other public secondary school exams.




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