Understanding standards maintenance

May 2019
How are standards maintained on the national curriculum tests?

Each May, we know two things will happen. Year 6 pupils in maintained schools in England will take their national curriculum tests, sometimes known as SATs, and the education press will publish articles reporting perceptions about the tests. This year, the TES included the following: “Too challenging? Maths tests divide opinion” and “There were mixed verdicts on today's key stage 2 reading test, with some teachers saying it was "tricky" … but others thinking it was fair.” (TES, 14 and 16 May).

Teachers’ comments tend to vary, with some expressing relief about the content of the tests and others voicing concerns. At this stage there is often some comment about the demand of the tests relative to previous years. And this is where the myths can start, along the lines of ‘Thresholds will be higher this year because the government wants …’.

Many teachers will remember 2016 when standards were set following the introduction of the new national curriculum. This curriculum is more challenging than what preceded it and expectations concerning achievement at the end of primary school were raised. As a consequence, in 2016, proportionally fewer pupils met the expected standards in the assessed subjects than in the previous year. Ever since then, the exercise undertaken annually by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) is to maintain this standard.

There is extensive trialling of these national curriculum tests. Data from trialling, including the performance of ‘anchor items’ that are used each year in the trialling and which are kept confidential, enable STA to calculate whether the new tests are of the same level of demand, are slightly harder or slightly easier, than the tests that have been taken in previous years. If they find that a test is tending to be slightly more challenging, then the number of marks needed for a given scaled score is likely to fall. Similarly with an easier test, the number of marks required will rise. Of course, the difficulty of the test relative to previous years’ tests may not be consistent across the mark range. It’s possible that a test may have more questions that prove challenging for the higher attaining pupils and also have more questions that lower achieving pupils can score marks on.

The threshold which people tend to focus on is the one that equates to a scaled score of 100 i.e. the number of marks needed to meet the expected standard. In 2018, pupils needed to achieve 28 marks in reading and 61 marks in maths to reach the expected standard. On 9th July STA will publish the thresholds needed for 2019. This is a rigorous and technical process, independent of ministers, and the teacher unions are invited as observers to the meeting at which the decisions are made. The announcement of these thresholds is typically made on the gov.uk website providing conversion tables to convert raw scores in the national curriculum tests to scaled scores. We will be sure to tweet a link to the announcement on our @NFERClassroom Twitter account.