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National Reference Test 2019 – 10 things you need to know

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Around England, a sample of schools are about to take the third annual National Reference Test (NRT). This test provides a valuable and unique source of evidence about the performance of year 11 students in English language and maths. From 2019, this will provide an additional source of evidence for exam boards to use when setting grade boundaries in GCSE English language and maths.

Here are 10 things you need to know about the NRT:

  1. Two subjects, 300 schools, just under 20,000 students. Up to 30 students in each sample school will take the English test and another 30 students will take the maths test. Each test lasts an hour.
  2. No preparation required. Legislation requires schools to take part in the test, but importantly, there is no need for students or teachers at participating schools to prepare for the test.
  3. The sample is nationally representative. Schools are selected on the basis of their size, and their previous results in GCSE English language and GCSE maths. That gives us results which can be generalised to all year 11 students in England.
  4. Questions remain the same each year. Identifying changes over time in GCSE exams is challenging because the questions change each year, and so one year’s paper can be more (or less) demanding than the previous year's. In the NRT, the questions remain the same, and this means we can better measure changes in how students perform over time on those same questions.
  5. Results are reported nationally at grades 7/6, 5/4 and 4/3. They are reported as the likely proportion of students at each of these grade boundaries, compared to the proportion who achieved these grades in 2017.
  6. There are no individual student or school results. Each student is only asked to answer some of the overall set of test questions. Their answers are then combined with others to generate national results.
  7. Results in 2018 showed a small increase in maths and no change in English. There is more detail in the results report and annual statement that we published in December 2018.
  8. We will consider 2019 NRT results in awarding this summer. The NRT evidence will form part of our preparations for summer awarding. We will consider whether there is a case for making an adjustment to grade standards in GCSE English and/or GCSE maths.
  9. Extra information at awarding, not the only information. The NRT will show if there is any change in how students perform at a national level over time. But exam boards will continue to use other evidence in awarding too, just as they do now. We will also consider other evidence, for example from the NRT student survey, which includes information on student motivation and views on the value of studying English and maths.
  10. NRT evidence will only directly inform the awarding of English language and maths. But we will be mindful of changes in English and maths if we see them in the awarding of other subjects. We don’t think the NRT will provide very strong evidence for other subjects (given that questions are designed to reflect GCSE English or GCSE maths questions) but we have other work underway to consider how exam boards might be better able to detect changes in performance in other subjects.

The 2019 NRT takes place between 25 February and 8 March. If your school is part of this year’s sample, thank you for taking part. We’ll publish the 2019 results, and a statement about how we’ve used those results, on 22 August – GCSE results day. In the meantime, if you want more information on the test itself or the 2018 results, you can find it here.

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