A catalogue of errors in a new school IT system could lead to thousands of primary pupils receiving inaccurate assessments of their reading and writing ability.
And now the Belfast Telegraph can reveal the full extent of the crisis in the new £2.5m computer- based system that has affected hundreds of primary schools.
The chaos, which was first revealed by this paper several weeks ago, was yesterday compared to the IT meltdown suffered by Ulster Bank.
As well as 206 schools having now reported issues with the Northern Ireland Literacy Assessment (NILA) and the Northern Ireland Numeracy Assessment (NINA), angry principals have written to the Education Minister expressing their concerns about the ongoing crisis.
In correspondence seen by the Belfast Telegraph, which revealed the IT glitches plaguing schools, principals have told how:
l Lithuanian children who had just arrived here with no English were, according to the diagnostic tests, able to recognise familiar words and spell accurately.
l As the reports for parents use colour-coded circles and stars, some had to be coloured in by hand as some schools don't have colour printers.
l Pupils with learning difficulties were receiving comments identical to children in the top educational group.
l Schools did not have the level of IT hardware and internet speeds required to run the tests.
l The assessments failed to meet the needs of deaf children with the problems described as worse than they were with the old Incas tests.
Ballymena Principals' Association has told Minister John O'Dowd: “Introducing an assessment tool that is unworkable, unreliable and not fit for purpose undermines the confidence of teachers, pupils and parents in the computer-based assessments.”
The letter urged: “Schools should not be required to share the outcomes with parents this year and your department should conduct a thorough consultation process with all primary schools to ensure that the new computer- based assessments are fit for purpose before becoming statutory.”
North Down Primary Principals' Group described the tests as “cruel” to children, who were left demoralised by the whole process.
They have described the quality of feedback as “extremely poor” and reported how teachers found the “process extremely stressful”.
“As principals we feel very angry that the children have been subjected to these tests and that staff time has been wasted in this way.
We believe that pupils and staff deserve better. Clearly who ever made the decisions that resulted in NINAs and NILAs being forced on us has no regard for the welfare of either pupils or staff,” they added.
The National Deaf Children's Society (NDCS) has also raised concerns over the new NINA and NILA assessments.
Minister O'Dowd has ordered a full report on the debacle including an analysis of why the difficulties reported were not apparent when around one in four schools and 21,000 pupils took part in trials earlier this year.
By Lindsay Fergus
The IT glitches affecting hundreds of primary schools carrying out literacy and numeracy computer tests were likened to the crisis that rocked Ulster Bank over the summer.
North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey told the education committee: “My worry is this is the Ulster Bank crisis in the Department of Education.”
Mr Storey, who is chairman of the committee which quizzed officials from the Department of Education and the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA), about the new computer-based assessments also expressed concerns about the reliability of the tests' findings.
He said: “Parents are being provided with reports that do not reflect their children's ability. If that diagnostic test is not able to give us accurate information then we have to question seriously why are we doing it.”
Department officials stated that resolving the issue was a priority.
Lagan Valley MLA Jonathan Craig told the committee that his local principals' association had reported that 52 of its schools had encountered problems.
The department refuted claims the tests had disrupted children's education. Official Katrina Godfrey said that more than 55,000 pupils had completed tests that did not have to be concluded until December.