Results of last year's national tests at 14 in English, to be published today, are worse than the previous year's with only about 50 per cent of the pupils reaching the standard expected by the Government.
The proportion of pupils getting the top grades has fallen sharply, lending support to English teachers' claims that marking this year was unfair to bright pupils.
Traditionalists said even the 1994 English results showed unacceptable standards of literacy and undermined teachers' claims that standards are rising.
English teachers, however, say the tests are too narrow and do not allow pupils to show what they can do. They want more coursework and fewer formal tests.
Full results of national curriculum tests for 7-, 11- and 14-year-olds taken last spring and summer by 2 million children will be released by Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, today.
Delay in publishing the results has fuelled speculation that they are disappointing.
The tests are marked on a scale of one (bottom) to eight (top). Last year, for the first time, they were marked by external markers instead of class teachers.
The Government says that the average 14-year-old should reach between level five and six. But last year only 55 per cent reached level five or better in English compared with 58 per cent the year before.
Only 20 per cent reached level six or more, compared with 31 per cent last year, and just 4 per cent reached levels seven and eight, compared with more than 10 per cent in the previous year - a difference of nearly 40,000 pupils.
The results take into account the 20,000 pupils who had their marks changed after 900 schools complained about unfair marking.
An Exeter University report on the tests, to be published shortly, will say that questions in the compulsory Shakespeare paper were too narrow to allow bright pupils to show what they could do.
Bethan Marshall, an executive member of the National Association for the Teaching of English, which complained about inexperienced markers, said: "The markers were not all English specialists and the mark scheme was too rigid to take account of the bright child who comes up with unexpected answers. This has created some extremely erratic results."
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which advises the Government on exams, has admitted there were difficulties over marking English tests and has promised to tighten up the supervision and training for markers.
It is also piloting new tests for 14-year-olds on Shakespeare which would include coursework and would allow teachers to set tests when they chose. It says English teachers have exaggerated the problems over marking.
Dr Nick Tate, the authority's chief executive, said before Christmas that the test results suggested that standards of reading and writing among seven-year-olds were rising while those in maths remained much the same.
Results for 14-year-olds in English, maths and science remained much the same.
Mrs Shephard will also announce that the Government is to consult on whether to go ahead with performance tables for primary schools based on national tests at 11. At present performance tables are confined to GCSE and A-level results.
Ministers have said they intend to wait until tests for 11-year-olds have "bedded down" before introducing tables. The first tests were set last year.Reuse content