Three-tier system for testing: Yesterday's paper set out to explore comprehension and word skills, writes Judith Judd

ENGLISH tests for 14-year-olds are divided into three tiers for below average, average and able pupils. According to the number of papers ordered by schools teachers thought about 60 per cent of children should enter the middle tier and only about 4 per cent the top tier. For the bottom tier the figure was 33 per cent.

In yesterday's one-and-a-half hour test of reading and writing pupils of average ability had to answer questions on a passage from a book about sailing round Britain.

For example, in relation to the passage 'I'd sailed down from the Clyde through the straits between Ulster and the Mull of Galloway to find every wave in the Irish Sea snarling and baring its teeth . . . Gosfield Maid slammed and jolted like a country bus' pupils are asked to say, for two marks, why 'like a country bus on a bad road' is a suitable description. Secondly, they are asked to read and answer questions on an extract from an information booklet about the work of an airline cabin crew. For example, they have to make a list of five skills which flight attendants need after being given the example of 'coping with nervous and aggressive passengers'. A third multiple- choice section tests their use of language with a passage on the work of airline staff in which gaps are left for words. For each gap they are offered a choice of four words. For example, 'they have to (choose from regulate, operate, learn, read) one of up to 20,000 computer terminals the airline may have around the world, all linked to a central computer that not only (choose from processes, progresses, proceeds, presumes) seating information but (choose from handles, overrules, manoeuvres, manipulates) all the airline planning and control'.

Fourthly, pupils are given an interview with a woman who has just returned from a transatlantic crossing in a small boat and an article based on the interview in which gaps have been left. Gillian Hurst says in the interview 'it feels marvellous to be back home and an enormous relief really'. In the article, pupils are asked to fill in the gap between 'she said' . . . and 'she was to be back home again'.

The last question is an advertisement for the National Trust for Scotland. They are asked to write to the National Trust Information Officer asking for information and material for a school project.

The format for the paper for other pupils is similar but the questions are varied to suit their ability. For example, less able pupils are asked to write a shorter letter, and the more able a longer one.

More able pupils are set a passage on the Buxton Micrarium in Derbyshire. 'Janet Carter finds children of all ages are interested in what they discover on the screens. A two-year-old visitor chuckled away at the little creature darting about and teenage girls are riveted to the water-fleas' screens when a flea is giving birth. Others are fascinated by seeing how crystals melt when they press a heat button and the special Moon rock we have once a year is a great favourite.' The piece describes how year seven children flit from screen to screen. Candidates are asked to complete, in note form, a summary of some of the points in the article, for example, how children of different ages react.

(Photograph omitted)