Schools ‘nervous’ about new standards test, heads warn

national reference test exams

Pupils from about 300 schools a year will be asked to sit extra tests in maths or English in the final run-up to their GCSEs, Ofqual revealed today.

The exams watchdog gave the figure for its new national reference test (NRT) as it announced that it had awarded the contract to develop and deliver it to the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

The first reference tests will be introduced in March 2017. The results will be used nationally to help decide where GCSE grade boundaries should lie in future years, but will not be published for individual pupils or schools.

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief executive, said: “The tests will provide additional information that we expect to significantly advance our ability to detect genuine changes in performance and so improve awarding.

“We will act cautiously as we build our understanding of the information that the tests will provide and how this is used in GCSE awarding.”

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he thought schools would be nervous about participating in the tests.

“These tests will be sat by Year 11s very shortly before their final exams. Schools will be very anxious not to do anything that could undermine performance in the exams, so the design of the tests and their administration will be crucial.”

Ofqual says the new tests will take less than an hour to complete. Last year, asked whether the NRT would be compulsory for schools selected for the sample, Ms Stacey was non-committal.

“I am not sure that in our culture we could insist on students taking it,” she said. “But discussions are still to be had.”

TES revealed in January that exam insiders feared the tests would not work as intended and that Ofqual had not appreciated the technical difficulties involved.

In February, researchers from Cambridge Assessment warned that the results would not be a “strong source of evidence for genuine changes in performance” in subjects other than maths and English, as the watchdog hoped.

But today NFER chief executive Carole Willis said: “This is an important development in providing robust independent research evidence for education and will add to the evidence on standards that NFER already provides, for example through international surveys.”

Ofqual missed its original deadline for awarding the NRT contract despite extending it from August 2014 to the end of last year.

TES understands that Pearson, Cambridge Assessment and Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring all considered bidding but decided not to. Concerns had been raised that the contract would “punish” a contractor that failed to set up the tests in a substantial proportion of England’s secondaries in “double-quick time”.

Ms Stacey has said that a small trial of the new test will take place later this year, with another “full cohort” trial in 2016.

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