Leading article: A necessary test of confidence

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Given the shambles that has been this year's school testing and exam season so far, the decision of the independent regulator, Ofqual, to conduct an all-round evaluation of the system is the very least that needs to be done. Kathleen Tattersall, who chairs Ofqual, said in an interview with this newspaper that a debate was needed to foster better understanding and confidence in the assessment system. She can say that again.

Recent experience has exposed concerns that must be allayed. The first, but not necessarily the most important, relates to process. There were big problems with the actual mechanical process of marking this year's Sats, including delays and computer glitches. There were also difficulties in recruiting markers. Even now – as the Secretary of State, Ed Balls, admits – not all pupils have their results, although provisional figures have been published.

All this suggests that there may also have been flaws in the criteria set for awarding the contract. Even if, as Ms Tattersall has stated on other occasions, this year's marking standards are not inferior to those of previous years, the other difficulties have undermined confidence in the whole operation. The second, probably more serious, worry concerns standards. This is not just about the perennial accusations of "dumbing down". The experience of one headmistress who went public with two scripts of wildly different quality that were awarded similar marks surely confirmed the fears of many who believe, not only anecdotally, that grasp of quite basic numeracy and literacy in this country has lapsed.

Related to this is the small matter of "core" skills. If pupils can achieve the highest grades without mastering skills that most people would consider essential, then how useful are these tests, and the league tables that rely on them? In The Independent today, Mr Balls defends testing as a crucial way of tracking schools' progress – and, by extension, of whether he is doing his job. This is true – but only to the extent that the system commands professional and public respect. Two years, the time the Ofqual study will take, seems a long time to have to wait to find this out.

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