Need to know: The GCSE national reference test

This week Ofqual will publish the national reference test results - but what does it mean for schools?

Will Hazell

Ofqual has looked at exam systems around the world and says that England's compares favourably

On Thursday Ofqual will be publishing results for the second year of its national reference test.

What is the test and why is it important? Here's what you need to know.

What is the national reference test?

The national reference test (NRT) was introduced in 2017 to provide extra information to help the awarding of GCSEs. It was sat for the second time in the spring of 2018.

The test was designed to provide evidence on changes in performance standards over time in English language and mathematics in England at the end of Year 11. It is currently run by the National Foundation for Educational Research under a contract with Ofqual.

Who sits the test?

Each year, a random sample of around 350 schools are selected and 60 pupils at each school take a test booklet in mathematics or English (30 for each subject).

The Year 11 pupils take the test in late February or early March, before they take their GCSEs in May and June. The test is securely administered and the content is largely the same each year.

What happens to the results?

The results are analysed at a national level, with no results published for individual schools or pupils. The outcomes have no direct consequences for the sampled students or schools.

So what’s the point?

The purpose of the test is to indicate the percentage of students who are predicted to achieve at least a grade 4, a grade 5 or a grade 7 in their GCSEs. The tests will show if these percentages change from year to year, and if they do change, it could be taken into account when GCSEs are being awarded.

Essentially, the idea behind the test is to provide an independent gauge of whether there have been genuine improvements in pupil performance that would justify an increase in the GCSE pass rate nationally.

Under our current grading system, known as comparable outcomes, the same proportion of students achieve broadly the same profile of grades as previous years, assuming that the prior attainment of the cohort (as measured by key stage 2 Sats results) stays the same.

This approach brought to an end years of grade inflation. It also protects students sitting their GCSEs from being unfairly penalised because they happen to be sitting a set of qualifications which have been radically reformed over the past two years (experience shows that performance often drops in the years immediately following an exams shake-up, before slowly creeping up again – something referred to as the “saw tooth effect”).

While comparable outcomes have these advantages, the main criticism of the system is that if the quality of teaching and learning improves, it won’t be fully reflected in exam results. The NRT could provide an independent yardstick – if it indicates performance has improved compared to previous years, GCSE results could be allowed to increase, while sidestepping claims of grade inflation.

So when will the NRT results be used?

Ofqual has said that the earliest point at which exam boards could be allowed to use the NRT data when awarding grades is 2019.

However, the decision about whether they do use it won’t be made until the summer.

At the start of May, Ofqual expects to receive a statistical analysis of the NRT results and their reliability. It will convene a panel, including representation from the main exam boards, to scrutinise the analysis.

The decision about whether and how to use the data in the GCSEs will then be Ofqual’s to make.

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Will Hazell

Will Hazell

Will Hazell is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @whazell

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