Last year, the failure of more than half 11-year-olds to reach the expected standard in maths and English caused a political row with Labour blaming the poor results on 17 years of Conservative government.
Ministers, who are bracing themselves for a report on maths later this week showing that England is slipping down the international league table, called yesterday's results "encouraging". But some teachers said the improvements had nothing to do with higher standards: they simply reflected changes made in the tests and schools' growing familiarity with them. In English 58 per cent of pupils scored at or above the expected level compared with 48 per cent last year. In maths, 54 per cent did so compared with 44 per cent last year.
In science, where last year's results were better than those in English and maths, the figure was 62 per cent, down from 70 per cent.
Results for 7- and 14-year-olds remained at much the same level as before; more than four-fifths reached the expected standard at 7 and between one- half and two-thirds did so at 14.
Cheryl Gillan, Schools minister, said: "This year's results are encouraging, They confirm that our 11-year-olds are doing better as teachers build on the first year of 11-year-old tests. But there is no room for complacency; we must do better."
David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman, said: "The fact that 40 per cent of 11-year olds are failing to reach the expected reading or maths level for their age, representing over 200,000 children, is a serious indictment of the Government's record on education over the last 18 years."
The tests were changed this year after teachers' criticisms that there was too much reading in English, not enough time in maths and that science was easier than the other two.
Anne Barnes, general secretary of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: "Claims that things are better or worse are nonsensical. Once you have a norm, you have to adjust it when you discover children aren't reaching it. That's what has happened here. In addition, teachers are teaching to the test. The fact that children have got better at doing the tests doesn't mean that they are better at English."
A spokesman for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority refuted the idea that the tests were easier this year. "In two areas in particular - English for seven-year-olds and science for 11-year-olds - they are harder." A survey by the SCAA shows that three-quarters of schools revised for the tests this year, almost certainly an increase on last year.
Eighty per cent of 11-year-olds surveyed thought the tests were a good idea and the same percentage of teachers said that external marking had made them more manageable. After last year's results, Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, announced that league tables for primary schools would be published for this year's results.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that schools were "performing very well, despite all the pressure of shortage of resources and an over-loaded curriculum".
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said that Mrs Shephard should apologise to the profession for her unfair criticism of them last year.
What the 11-year-olds were asked
A selection of questions from the tests taken by 11-year-old children.
ENGLISH: Look who's talking!
The story Time Trouble starts with a clock that talks. Write your own story about something that one day suddenly starts to talk. These pictures may give you some ideas (Pictured: a tree, a ball, a teddy bear, a chair).
You should think about: What it is that talks, who it is talking to, what it says, what happens next.
MATHS: This question cannot be answered using a calculator.
N stands for a number.
N + 7 = 13
What is the value of N + 10?
SCIENCE: Weighing bricks
Pupils weigh bricks using a forcemeter.
In air the forcemeter reads 3.5N with the rubber brick, 30N with the house brick. In water the forcemeter reads 10N with the rubber brick, 12N with the house brick. Complete the table to show the forcemeter readings.
b) The forcemeter spring is stretched when a brick is hung on it. Name the force which pulls down the brick.Reuse content