Maths results are worse than last year for both 11- and 14-year-olds and those for science are also down at 14. In both maths and English, the results for seven-year-olds remain largely unchanged.
Ministers, who have set targets to bring 75 per cent of 11-year-olds up to the expected level in maths and 80 per cent in English by 2002, say that they are still on track and that new mental arithmetic tests are responsible for the drop in maths. However, an improvement of 4 per cent a year is now required. This year the percentage reaching the expected level in maths at 11 fell from 62 to 59 and rose in English by just 2 per cent to 65 per cent.
Professor Ted Wragg, of Exeter University's school of education, said yesterday that the tailing off of improvements was exactly what he would have expected.
"The targets are highly ambitious and if the Government reaches them we shall need to ask some searching questions, such as have the tests been made easier and have the gains been achieved at the expense of the least and the most able because teachers have been concentrating on bringing most children up to the required level," he said.
"It is a pity David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, said he would resign if the targets are not reached. He is a good minister and he should be judged on the job he is doing."
This year's results were not unexpected, he said, because level four - the expected standard at 11 - had been set on the basis of what a typical 11-year-old should be able to do. "You would not expect more than two- thirds to be average. Compared with previous generations, the Government is wanting three-quarters or more of children to be average."
Professor Alan Smithers of Liverpool University said: "The Government has more of a political problem than an educational problem. It is going to be difficult to get the numbers to come out in their favour. But I believe ministers will change expectations in primary schools and get home the message that children can reach certain levels, whatever their background."
Mr Blunkett said that investment in a new literacy hour to be introduced into primary schools this autumn and a new numeracy hour next autumn would raise standards.
Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, yesterday insisted that the targets would "definitely" be met.
He said: "We have the national numeracy strategy coming on stream next year, and a pounds 60m investment. Every teacher in the country will be trained in the methods of teaching basic arithmetic that we know from inspection evidence work.
"I expect that there will be a very steep increase once that training starts to have an impact."
Professor David Reynolds, of Newcastle University, who chaired the Government's numeracy task force, which backed a new dedicated hour in primary schools, said: "There is evidence from the national numeracy and literacy project evaluation of standards increasing very rapidly."
Some literacy projects in the United States had produced improvements on an "awesome" scale, he said.
At 14, the percentage of pupils reaching the expected level in maths was down from 60 to 59 per cent and in science from 60 to 56 per cent. For English, the figure rose from 57 to 65 per cent.
Last night, English teachers were sceptical about the results. The National Association for the Teaching of English said that it had received dozens of complaints from teachers saying that pupils had received up to two grades higher than they deserved.
Anne Barnes, the association's general secretary, said: "This shows that these English tests are still hopelessly unreliable."Reuse content