National Curriculum assessment

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 is unrelated to the US college admission test, the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test or Scholastic Assessment Test).


The tests were introduced over a period of several years, 1991–1999,[3] for the purpose of testing seven-, eleven- and fourteen-year-olds on nationally regulated educational standards.

Those for 14-year-olds were later abandoned. The tests for seven-year-olds were replaced by levels derived from teachers' own assessments.[3] All the tests were phased out in Wales between 2002 and 2005.[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 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
Key Stage Key Stage 1  
  Key Stage 2  
  Key Stage 3
  Key Stage 4

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.[5]

Where assessment is completed through testing, these assessments are known as National Curriculum Tests.[6]

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.[7] The term is variously believed to stand for Statutory Assessment Tests,[8] Standard Attainment Tests,[9] 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[10] alongside data for secondary schools relating to performance at Key Stage 4.

Key Stage 1

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.[5] 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.[8]

Key Stage 2

During May in the final year of Key Stage 2, children in state-funded schools (and independent schools if they so choose) undertake three National Curriculum Tests: reading; spelling, grammar and punctuation;[11] and Mathematics (2 reasoning papers and as of 2016, an arithmetic paper). Science tests are taken by a selected sample of schools to monitor national performance in science. Because the science sampling tests are to collect evidence on national performance, schools and pupils do not receive results. From 2014, the Science sampling tests have been taken biennially.

Writing, formerly a part of the test, is now assessed by teachers and is no longer part of the National Curriculum tests. This was a recommendation of the Bew Review ([12])

In addition to the tests, teachers are required to provide teacher assessments in the subjects tested.[5]

These tests provide grades from Level 3 to Level 5. Level 6 National Curriculum tests have been introduced for the exceptionally able. They are not mandatory, and teachers have to apply to give their pupils the tests.

With educational reforms under the 2010–2015 Coalition government, some changes were made to the tests from 2014; 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 reading 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 ([12]).

Key Stage 3 (Year 9)

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.[5]

Previous plans to introduce a test for Information and Communication Technology were dropped in favour of a bank of formative assessment materials.[13] ICT was disapplied from the National Curriculum in 2012 and replaced by a new 'Computing' curriculum in September 2014.

Following a series of issues regarding the marking of National Curriculum Tests, the national tests were abolished for Key Stage 3 in 2008.[14] Teacher assessments are still required in all the subjects of the National Curriculum and in Religious Education.[5]

Optional tests

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,[15] and in Years 7 and 8 during Key Stage 3.[15] 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

The results of the assessments, along with other student data, are stored in the National Pupil Database. In November 2012, Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove told Parliament that the database was 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 meant that "sensitive information held about children across Blighty could soon be in the hands of marketeers".[16]


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.[17][18]

The two main teaching unions spearheaded a boycott of the tests in 1993.[3]

In a 2008 report evaluating and analysing 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.[19]

Two leading unions, the NUT and the NAHT (though not the NASUWT), voted to boycott the tests in 2010, which resulted in a quarter of schools not administering the tests.[20] These unions wanted to see the tests replaced by teacher assessment.[21]


  1. Sats for 14-year-olds abolished: Teachers and parents praise decision
  2. 1 2 Headteacher welcomes end of SATs
  3. 1 2 3 4 "National SATs have proved controversial since being introduced 20 years ago". The Sentinel. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  4. "Secondary Schools 2006 (KS3)". National Curriculum Online. Qualifications & Curriculum Authority. 2008. Retrieved 2 June 2008.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 "National Curriculum teacher assessments and key stage tests". DirectGov website. H M Government. 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  6. "Tests and tasks: National Curriculum Tests". QCA website. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  7. 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.
  8. 1 2 "SAT Exams". WSCC website. West Sussex County Council. 2008. Archived from the original on 14 April 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  9. "The Standards Site: Online Help". DCSF website. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  10. "School and college achievement and attainment tables". DCSF website. Department for Children, Schools and Families. 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  12. 1 2
  13. "Key Stage 3 ICT assessment tasks: About the Tasks: Background". NAA website. National Assessment Agency. 2008. Retrieved 6 September 2008.
  14. "Tests scrapped for 14-year-olds". BBC website. British Broadcasting Corporation. 14 October 2008. Retrieved 14 October 2008.
  15. 1 2 "Years 3, 4 and 5 optional tests". QCA website. Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. 2008. Retrieved 18 February 2008.
  16. Fiveash, Kelly (8 November 2012). "Psst: Heard the one about the National Pupil Database? Thought not". The Register. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
  18. "Fresh criticism for Sats". SFS Group website. SFS Group. 2008. Archived from the original on 23 July 2008. Retrieved 31 May 2008.
  19. "Conclusions and Recommendations". Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Third Report. UK Parliament. 2008. Retrieved 31 May 2008.
  20. "'A quarter of schools' boycotted Sats tests". BBC News. Retrieved 17 May 2015.
  21. Shepherd, Jessica (16 April 2010). "Headteachers vote to boycott Sats tests". Retrieved 17 May 2015.

External links

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