Yesterday's publication of this year's Key Stage 3 tests came with an increasingly vocal call for their abandonment. The results have, apparently, changed little in the last four years, so the tests are said to serve no useful purpose. Let teachers mark them, goes the cry from correspondents on newspapers that normally serve as the last bastions of support for accountability.
But such siren calls should be ignored. The tests may be too much for able youngsters who can breeze through a level 5 - the expected standard - but in schools that are struggling to escape from failure and low attainment, they are an important step towards success, and a vital external vindication of their efforts. This is as true of academies that started from scratch as it is of schools coming out of special measures. Of course, such institutions need to be innovative to succeed, but they need validation that their efforts are not merely a modish experiment, and are leading to practical - and measurable - results.
This is not to say there should not be changes. External testing could be confined to English ands Maths, the two basic subjects that matter most. Given the increased focus on these subjects at GCSE, it is a valuable progress check for teachers. The science lobby may be dissatisfied with internal marking, but the government should do far more to maximise the availability of triple science at GCSE at the same time as dropping the external science test. This change would have the added benefit of reducing the pressure on the markers.
The second change should be in timing. 13 should become the normal age at which the tests are taken, rather than 14. A growing number of schools do this already. This would give greater encouragement for remedial teaching in the 3Rs where it was needed. It would allow an extra GCSE preparation year for those who needed it and more opportunities for a sort of 'gap year' of arts, culture, volunteering and sports for those who didn't. Schools could opt to enter pupils in Year 9 if they wished, but Year 8 would become the norm. The progress tests - where pupils cannot exceed the level for which they are entered - are a disaster waiting to happen, because of their complexity; this is a far more straightforward way to allow pupils to be tested when ready.
And thirdly, the value added measures used by the government in its league tables, already far too complicated in their make-up, should concentrate on progress from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 4, and not offer any perverse incentive to underperform at Key Stage 3.
With these changes, Key Stage 3 would continue to provide a vital external progress check on the 3Rs, but would do so in a way that freed schools and markers without losing independent accountability.