Poorer marks in English tests

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Government exam advisers have begun an investigation into why the proportion of 14-year-olds scoring high marks in national tests for English has dropped this year.

Their figures show that the number awarded the top two grades - levels seven and eight - is down by around two percentage points. There is no drop, however, in the percentage of top grades in maths and science, the two other subjects tested.

English teachers, who are sent the marked scripts, say the fall is the result of poor marking and are threatening to appeal against thousands of results. They claim weak students have scored more highly than they should and bright ones have done worse. The expected standard for a 14- year-old is between levels five and six.

But the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority points out that it has already checked the marking of thousands of scripts. Its officials say that only a minority of grades has been altered. It is confident that the markers have got it right.

Final results are due to go to out to schools by next Monday and most pupils should get their grades by the end of term next week. However, they are likely to be delayed in schools which appeal.

The re-marking was carried out after the authority discovered that the numbers receiving the top grades had fallen.

Various reasons have been suggested for the fall. It may be that this year's papers were harder, though that did not show up in trials, or simply that this year's cohort is less able than last year's. Some teachers have blamed the use of a poem by Edward Storey as a comprehension exercise.

However, a spokeswoman for the authority said: "It is not as simple as saying that it is just the poem. There is no reason why a poem should penalise those children at the top end of the range. There is also a drop in children achieving higher grades in the other paper." The National Association for the Teaching of English says that it is receiving dozens of calls from teachers who are dissatisfied with the marking and who say that they will appeal against the results.

Anne Barnes, the association's general secretary, said: "Something has gone badly wrong. The results are clustered around level four and level five. If the Government is going to set targets based on these tests, this is very serious."

Two years ago English teachers complained about the marking of the tests and thousands of pupils' marks were changed.