LONDON - As far as testing scandals go, the one currently occupying England's high schools and universities gets an A for originality. It involves not students accused of cheating to inflate their marks, but graders accused of cheating students by lowering them.
The graders are accused of flunking some of the country's brightest students on their college entrance examinations because they feared that a newly reformed testing system would appear too easy. The result, so far, is that straight-A students who were planning to attend such universities as Oxford or Cambridge are clutching cards with failing grades, looking for any college that will have them.
The scandal overtook Iraq - and even soccer - on the front pages of the country's newspapers last week. It has left universities befuddled as to who will be in their classrooms next week, and it has led to calls for heads to roll in the administration of Prime Minister Tony Blair - whose oldest son may have been a victim of the scandal, costing him a slot at Oxford.
"As a parent, I'm sickened," said Ian Duncan Smith, the Conservative party's leader, who has demanded a debate in the House of Commons when it is recalled next week to address the Iraq situation. "Whoever is responsible for this mess should pay for it with their own future."
At least three investigations are under way.
This year's university applicants were the first to undertake a newly reformed admission system; the old one had been criticized for judging a student on one "A-level" entrance exam and for passing rates that were steadily rising over the years. Under the new system, grading boards reviewed an entire year of a student's course work and assigned a grade to it. That grade was averaged with the grades received on two A-level entrance exams for each subject.
The scandal was touched off when teachers began to notice some of their brightest students were receiving failing grades from the boards for their course work. One teacher discovered 14 of her 16 private school students had failed their course work in English.
The government's education secretary, Estelle Morris, conceding that the scores appear suspect, has ordered that thousands be re-examined. The most common estimate is that 4,000 students have been affected.
The future, for students and universities alike, is far from certain. England's universities are scheduled to begin classes next week. But students who were denied admission to the college of their choice may yet be admitted, if not this school year then next, leaving many uncertain about where they'll be heading, if anywhere.
In the United States, college admission is typically decided on the basis of high school performance, tests such as the SAT, recommendations and other factors. Students are notified of admittance in the spring of their senior year.
In England, universities make offers to students before all the grades are in, with certain conditions. Euan Blair, the prime minister's son, was offered a slot in Oxford provided he received two As and a B on his "A-levels," the cumulative scores based on his course work and examinations.
He got the two As, but he received a C in French, his best subject, one grade lower than he needed for Oxford's Trinity College. His failure to get into Oxford was front-page news last month, before the scandal erupted.
Now, like the thousands of other students touched by the scandal, his school is appealing the grading results, although it will not confirm that Euan's scores in particular are in question. Other schools are also appealing after discovering that students who received As and Bs on their examinations somehow received failing grades on their course work, and other students who received As on a first round of practice tests were given failing marks on the real thing.
"That doesn't add up," a spokesman in the education ministry said this week. "It would be hard to believe if someone scored high in his course work but failed his examination, but it would be believable. Not so the other way around."
The chairman of one of the grading boards has admitted that scores were lowered "to maintain standards." He said the downgrading occurred to keep scores in line with those achieved last year. But, apparently, no grading curve was put in place. Instead, critics assert that the graders capriciously handed out low or failing scores on the course work to offset the higher grades on the examinations, bringing the entire field in line with last year's scores.
Under intense pressure, Morris, who as education secretary is a member of Tony Blair's cabinet, agreed to an independent investigation. Her office, which is also conducting its own investigation, decided to allow outside people to look into the matter because of charges the downgrading was made on orders from a government-appointed board stung by criticism that the final exams were not tough enough. She has denied her office had anything to do with the scoring.
"When we have been accused over the years of the dumbing down of exams, of making it easier for students to pass, we have been robust in our denials," she said at a news conference. "In this case, where there are accusations that we have intervened to make the assessment system harder, we are equally robust."
Still, she adds that "something untoward" appears to have happened. The government's Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which oversees the testing, said a preliminary investigation found no deliberate downgrading, though it acknowledged that graders and teachers may have been "confused" about how to score.
Morris has told universities they will be permitted to exceed their budgets this year if the rescoring leads to additional students eligible for enrollment.
As for Euan Blair, the prime minister's office will not comment on what effect the scandal and rescoring may have on his Oxford prospects. For now, he is enrolled in his second choice, Bristol University.