About 600,000 14-year-olds were due to sit the test in reading and writing but the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers said a survey of more than 30 local authorities revealed that all but a handful of schools had defied the Government. The three biggest unions are boycotting the tests which they say are educationally bad and involve too much work.
Nigel de Gruchy, the NASUWT general secretary, said: 'The hopeless position of the Secretary of State on the issue of this year's tests is another factor contributing to the air of gross incompetence which dogs Mr Major and his government.'
Mr Patten said parents would wonder what the fuss was about when they saw the tests. 'It is a great pity to see the beginnings of improved testing in our schools being brought to a halt in this way, by industrial action which should not happen in the classroom.'
English teachers said yesterday's test, which involved some multiple- choice questions, was narrow and unimaginative. Anne Barnes, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: 'They penalise able pupils by not giving them room to develop their thoughts and provide too many hurdles for the least able.'
The association called for next year's tests to be scrapped or made voluntary, and published a survey of English teachers who said independent reading and extended writing had suffered because of the tests.
They were particularly critical of the literature anthology which will be tested on Wednesday. One school had counted 19 departures from the original text in an extract from David Copperfield.
The National Union of Teachers said some of the test questions were confusing and unfair.
In an exercise in which pupils have to choose from a list of four words to fill gaps in a passage, they are told that passenger, not person, tripper or voyager, is the correct answer in the sentence: 'A single . . . of the tens of thousands who pass through a major airport every day.' A spokeswoman said it was not clear that passenger was correct. She also criticised the use of a passage on the London Underground as 'unsuitable for children in Carlisle'.
Mr de Gruchy said the test 'reduced English to multiple choice which became multiple guess'. Nick Tait, assistant chief executive of the School Examinations and Assessment Council, said: 'We have developed these tests to the best of our ability and we think they provide a valuable and reliable assessment of pupils.'
He said the marking scheme for the tests, which will take teachers between 11 and 13 hours for a class of 27, had been made easier to use and less time-consuming. He said a section of the David Copperfield text had been cut because of the constraints of space. There were scholarly controversies about which was the best text.
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