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The national reference test

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I have written to all secondary schools during half-term to provide them with information about the new national reference tests that we are introducing - and to ask them for their support for this important development.  The tests are being designed, developed and delivered on our behalf by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and they will shortly be contacting some schools to take part in early trials of reference test questions. I wanted to let you know about the tests and provide some background information in advance of this.

The national reference test is one of a number of strands of activity that we are considering to improve awarding. It is being introduced to provide additional information to support the awarding of GCSEs.  Currently, our comparable outcomes policy allows exam boards to increase the proportion of students awarded a higher grade in a particular year, provided that there is evidence to justify this.  However, exam boards currently have limited evidence to support judgments of a genuine change in student performance at the national level.  We know that teachers are concerned that their efforts to raise standards, year by year, may not be fully reflected in the awards made at GCSE; this is the gap that the new tests are designed to address.  So participation in the tests benefits both schools and students, as it helps provide the evidence of improving school performance at the national level that can be reflected in awarding.

Each year, a different sample of around 300 schools will be asked by NFER to take part in the tests.  A random sample of students from each school selected will take a paper lasting roughly one hour. Around 30 students will take the English paper and about another 30 students will take the maths paper.  In order to minimise the burden on participating schools, a test administrator from NFER will go to the school on a pre-agreed day.  We will publish information about overall test performance each summer when GCSE results are announced.  However, as the tests will not measure performance for individual schools or students, the results will not be used for accountability purposes.

It will take us several years to introduce the new tests and to use the information gained from them. We will act cautiously as we build our understanding of the information that the tests will provide and how this information can be used when awarding GCSEs.  Our timetable for introducing the tests includes:

  1. School-based initial trials of questions to be used in the tests in September and October 2015.
  2. A preliminary reference test in March 2016, which will enable us to confirm that all aspects of the tests are functioning properly.
  3. The first national reference tests in March 2017.
  4. From 2018, we will consider the results from the tests to determine changes in performance that should be taken into account when GCSEs are awarded.

The new tests will only be successful if schools take part in them.  It is particularly important that the sample of schools and students that take part in the tests each year is nationally representative.  Therefore I would urge any selected school to participate.

We have produced a fact sheet that provides more information about the tests and how they will be administered in schools.

Glenys Stacey
Chief Regulator

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