National Curriculum assessment

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National Curriculum assessments are a series of educational assessments, colloquially known as Sats[1] or SATs (see Terminology section),[2] used to assess the attainment of children attending maintained schools in England. They comprise a mixture of teacher-led and test-based assessment depending on the age of the pupils. This test should not be confused with the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test or Scholastic Assessment Test), a Reasoning Test administered by the US examination boards College Board and Educational Testing Service and taken by high school students in the United States of America for admission into colleges.


The tests were introduced for the purpose of testing 7-year-olds on nationally regulated educational standards, and for 11-year-olds to fulfil the exact same purpose.

Similar tests were introduced for 14-year-olds but were scrapped eventually.

Over the years, L6 National Curriculum mathematics and reading tests were introduced for the exceptionally more able. They were not mandatory, and teachers had to apply to give their pupils the test. There existed KS2 extension tests in the past, which assessed L6 content, but were scrapped by the Labour party after being deemed 'too hard'. In mathematics, the tests are 30 mins long. There are 2: 'Test A' and 'Test B', but no 'Mental' maths tests, unlike the standard Level 3-5 tests. The L6 reading test is an hour long. Grammar, punctuation and spelling tests were introduced for both L3-5 and L6.

At first, the writing test was a compulsory element. Later on, the writing test became optional as teacher assessment became the primary measure of performance and progress in writing. Gradually, the writing paper was removed from the National Curriculum tests. This was a recommendation of the Bew Review ([3])

In order to complement and supplement the National Curriculum assessment, an additional Key Stage 2 grammar test was added in order to test pupils spelling and punctuation, this consists of a 45 minute grammar test and 15 minute 20 word spelling test.[4]

With recent educational reforms, some changes were made to the tests; calculators can no longer be used in the L3-5 mathematics paper (but can be used for the L6 paper), the L3-5 reading test no longer has separate reading time and the texts are not linked by a theme. This is to allow the texts to be ramped in difficulty for accessibility reasons and was a recommendation of the Bew Review ([3]).

The assessments are completed at the end of each Key Stage and record attainment in terms of National Curriculum attainment levels, numbered between 1 and 8. The expectations for each stage are set out as follows:

Key Stage School Year Approximate
Pupil Age
Highest Level Achievable by Test
Key Stage 1 Year 2 7 2 3
Key Stage 2 Year 6 11 4 6
Key Stage 3 Year 9 14 6 8
Level 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Key Stage Key Stage 1  
  Key Stage 2  
  Key Stage 3

The national curriculum tests are developed by the Standards and Testing Agency (STA), which is an executive agency of the Department for Education. The STA was formed as part of the UK governments reformation of the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) and the formation of Ofqual. The development of the tests is now regulated by government of the United Kingdom and by Ofqual.


The terminology used for the assessments varies both in type and context. Where assessments are made in-school by class teachers, these are referred to as Teacher Assessments. These assessments make up part of the final assessment at the end of all Key Stages.[6]

Where assessment is completed through testing, these assessments are known as National Curriculum Tests.[7]

Colloquially the assessments—particularly in the test form—are referred to as SATs. This terminology is rooted in the original intention to introduce Standard Assessment Tasks when the assessments were first introduced.[8] The term is variously believed to stand for Statutory Assessment Tests,[9] Standard Attainment Tests,[10] Standardised Achievement Tests and Standard Assessment Tests.[2] "SATs" is pronounced as one word, rather than the American SATs (where the letters "S-A-T" are pronounced individually).


In England, data collected from the assessments at all three key stages are published nationally in performance tables produced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families[11] alongside data for secondary schools relating to performance at Key Stage 4.

Key Stage 1[edit]

During Year 2, teacher assessment is carried out in the core subjects of English, Mathematics and Science. In English, teachers are required to record a level in the three strands of Reading, Writing, and Speaking & Listening.[6] To assist teachers in arriving at an assessed level, tests and tasks can be completed in reading, writing and mathematics. These are normally taken during May.[9]

Key Stage 2[edit]

During May in the final year of Key Stage 2, children undertake National Curriculum Tests (commonly known as SATs) in English and Mathematics. Since recently, the Science tests are taken by a selected sample of schools to monitor national performance in science. In recent times, a sample of pupils, as opposed to a sample of schools, will be drawn to sit the science tests. Because the science sampling tests are to collect evidence on national performance, schools and pupils will not receive results. From 2014, the science sampling tests will be taken biennially, rather than every year.

Children are currently (according to the most up-to-date reports) assessed in grammar, punctuation and spelling.

The tests provide records of attainment in English reading, grammar, punctuation and spelling, and mathematics.

As opposed to the past, writing is now assessed by teachers and is no longer part of the National Curriculum tests. In addition, teachers are required to provide teacher assessments in the subjects above.[6]

Key Stage 3 (Year 9)[edit]

For many years, during the final year of Key Stage 3, all pupils were required to undertake National Curriculum Tests in the three core subjects of English, Mathematics and Science. These provided records of attainment in the subjects, including separate levels for reading and writing as part of the overall English grade. The English assessments also included the study of a Shakespeare play.[6]

Previous plans to introduce a test for Information and Communication Technology were dropped in favour of a bank of formative assessment materials.[12]

Following a series of issues regarding the marking of National Curriculum Tests in recent years, the national tests were abolished for Key Stage 3.[13] Teacher assessments are still required in all the subjects of the National Curriculum and in Religious Education.[6]

Optional tests[edit]

In addition to the statutory assessments at the end of each key stage, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority produces suites of tests for the assessment of English and Mathematics in Years 3, 4 and 5 during Key Stage 2,[14] and in Years 7 and 8 during Key Stage 3.[14] These tests are not statutory, hence their titling as Optional Tests. Although no longer compulsory, assessment materials are also still available for Year 9.

National Pupil Database and information privacy[edit]

The results of the assessments are among data stored in the National Pupil Database, which the most recent Education Secretary of the government of the United Kingdom described once as a "rich dataset" whose value could be "maximised" by making it more openly accessible, including to private companies. Under the plans for opening up access to the information, third-party organisations would be responsible for anonymising any publications themselves, rather than the data being anonymised by the government before being handed over. The Register said this means that "sensitive information held about children across Blighty could soon be in the hands of marketeers".[15]


Like many tests of this nature, the assessments have been subject to a variety of criticism. Two of the main points of concern are that they place children under constant stress for their whole academic lives, and that the principal purpose of national curriculum testing is for school league tables.[16][17]

In a report evaluating and analyzing National Testing, the House of Commons, the Select Committee and the Department for Children, Schools and Families registered its concern with the current testing arrangements in state schools. It raised concerns that the "professional abilities of teachers" were under-used and that the high-stakes nature of the tests led to "phenomena such as teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum and focusing disproportionate resources on borderline pupils." They further recommended that the multiple uses of National Curriculum assessment - for local accountability, national monitoring, and individual progress measurement - be separated into different forms of assessment.[18]

The National Union of Teachers voted to ballot members on boycotting SATs tests for the following year.[19]


  1. ^ Sats for 14-year-olds abolished: Teachers and parents praise decision
  2. ^ a b Headteacher welcomes end of SATs
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Secondary Schools 2006 (KS3)". National Curriculum Online. Qualifications & Curriculum Authority. 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-02. 
  6. ^ a b c d e "National Curriculum teacher assessments and key stage tests". DirectGov website. H M Government. 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  7. ^ "Tests and tasks: National Curriculum Tests". QCA website. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  8. ^ Kirkup, C; Sizmur, J.; Sturman, L.; Lewis, K. (2005). Schools’ Use of Data in Teaching and Learning (PDF). London: Department for Education and Skills / NFER. p. 27. 
  9. ^ a b "SAT Exams". WSCC website. West Sussex County Council. 2008. Archived from the original on 14 Apr 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  10. ^ "The Standards Site: Online Help". DCSF website. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  11. ^ "School and college achievement and attainment tables". DCSF website. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  12. ^ "Key Stage 3 ICT assessment tasks: About the Tasks: Background". NAA website. National Assessment Agency. 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-06. 
  13. ^ "Tests scrapped for 14-year-olds". BBC website (British Broadcasting Corporation). 2008-10-14. Retrieved 2008-10-14. 
  14. ^ a b "Years 3, 4 and 5 optional tests". QCA website. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. 2008. Retrieved 2008-02-18. 
  15. ^ Fiveash, Kelly (2012-11-08). "Psst: Heard the one about the National Pupil Database? Thought not". The Register. Retrieved 2012-12-12. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ "Fresh criticism for Sats". SFS Group website. SFS Group. 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-31. [dead link]
  18. ^ "Conclusions and Recommendations". Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Third Report. UK Parliament. 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-31. 
  19. ^ Teachers back a boycott of Sats BBC News, 11 April 2009