Education: A test of pupils' sophistication: Some schools will set papers of their own this summer, says Judith Judd

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The Independent Online
FOURTEEN-year-olds who hope to escape testing this year because of the teachers' boycott are likely to be disappointed. Schools have a long tradition of testing this age group. Some are going ahead with the tests they have always used. Others have quietly begun the search for an alternative to the Government's tests.

Yesterday the National Co-ordinating Committee on Testing and Assessment held a conference to discuss different forms of testing for next year. Seven West Oxfordshire heads have already devised English tests, to be taken next month, which they believe will give a fairer picture of their pupils' performance than the official equivalent.

They argue that the official tests, which require many short, even one-word answers, are so superficial that they give pupils no opportunity to show what they can do. As Emma Holden, head of English at Wood Green school, Witney, puts it: 'If I ask who is to blame for the death of Romeo and Juliet rather than what the word 'barque' means in line 5, I get a very different kind of response.' Her pupils sat part of the Government tests when sample questions arrived in February. The questions, she says, were puerile: 'They were asked, for instance, to write down four of the main events from a chapter or scene and put them in the right order - with the book in front of them.' And the results were distressing. 'There was very little difference between the weak, who saw everything in black and white, and the more able, who underperformed.'

The Government tests consist of one hour-and-a-half paper in three parts: reading comprehension, use of language and directed writing; a second hour-and-a-half paper with questions on Shakespeare and on a prescribed anthology, and a third hour-long paper of extended writing.

The West Oxfordshire tests include one paper with a core of questions, agreed by all the schools, on Doris Lessing's short story Through the Tunnel, which will be completed under exam conditions. In addition, pupils will be judged on eight pieces of work illustrating their ability in creative writing, factual writing, non-literary writing (on newspapers perhaps, or television), three examples of their response to literature and two projects to test speaking and listening. Schools will use their discretion about how these pieces are produced: many will be coursework, but some will be the result of timed tests.

All, however, require a longer and deeper response than the Government tests. For instance, a timed test on the novel, set at Marlborough School in Woodstock, asked pupils what they had learnt about the situation in Northern Ireland from reading Joan Lingard's Across the Barricades. All pupils will write an essay about a whole Shakespeare play instead of the short answers demanded in the Government tests.

Sarah Lee, head of English at Bartholomew School in Eynsham, says: 'We all have 14-year-old pupils who are capable of writing long, detailed, literary essays on Shakespeare. The Government's tests don't give them a chance to do that.'

The teachers chose Lessing's short story for the common paper because it is the only complete work in the Government anthology: many teachers oppose the use of literary extracts. The common questions are designed to be more open-ended than the Government's. The procedure will be the same everywhere - a teacher will read the story and there will be a class discussion, followed in the next lesson by the test paper. Denys Robinson, from Marlborough, says it was felt that the common paper was needed as a touchstone. Teachers at the seven schools will check each others' marking, and in July parents will be told which of the 10 national curriculum levels their children have reached.

The tests were devised after a series of meetings at which parents declared their unhappiness with Government English tests. The seven had to work fast, and they emphasise that their tests are still evolving and will be improved for next year. They are convinced, however, that they assess the national curriculum and prepare pupils for GCSE much better than those approved by John Patten. Mr Robinson says: 'We want the bureaucracy surrounding the tests simplified but we would like them to be more sophisticated. At the moment, we have the opposite.'

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