Preparing pupils for the return of national curriculum tests

The Covid-19 pandemic has presented immense challenges for the education system. The repercussions of months of lockdowns and home-learning; increased absence levels for pupils and adults working in school; and the many associated pressures faced by staff and pupils, are likely to be felt for some time. But as some routine begins to return, so do features of England’s education system which have been on an enforced hiatus for the last couple of years. Namely examinations and the national curriculum tests.

The reintroduction of these tests is likely to cause some anxiety for teachers, not least because their pupils may be performing somewhat differently to the cohorts of pre-pandemic pupils they are used to. Priorities may also be clearer than ever before, resulting in a reasonable desire to spend valuable curriculum time focusing on the specific needs of an individual or cohort rather than simply preparing en masse for these tests. Pupils too may feel less confident about their own abilities and more alarmed at the prospect of these external assessments.

So how best to achieve a pragmatic and sensitive approach to preparing pupils for the return of national curriculum tests (also known as SATs)? These are some simple strategies and points to remember:

1. Opportunities to prepare are everywhere.

Many of the pieces of work that pupils complete from day to day will mirror the tasks they will be asked to complete in those test papers meaning that much of the preparation is already in hand. Embedding the skills and knowledge that pupils need to perform well in the national career tests in schemes of work across the year is less overwhelming and more productive than spending too much discrete time on test preparation.

Formative assessment throughout the year will help you to identify what your class and individual groups and pupils need the most support with, so that you can prepare schemes of work and activities that target these areas. The good news is that much formative assessment can be informal and woven into the fabric of your lessons. Find out more about how to incorporate assessment for learning strategies into your teaching.

However, should you wish to use some more formal assessments to keep track of pupils’ progress throughout the year, there are a number of options available. NFER Tests are one of these, and are accompanied by diagnostic guides which offer valuable information about typical performance across the ability range and common misconceptions. Using an online analysis tool (such as the NFER Tests Analysis Tool) also enables you to compare your pupils’ performance on different questions, so that you can easily identify patterns in performance and consider which skills will require more attention as the year progresses.

2. A little practice makes perfect.

Most pupils will benefit from some focused preparation, so that they are familiar with the format of the paper and the types of texts and questions they may come across. If there are particular types of questions that require a little technique, perhaps have a look at one or two together. Pupils don’t always need to write individual responses to questions; instead ideas can be discussed (in groups of varying sizes). Pupils may enjoy playing teacher, marking and unpicking sample answers.

If however you do want pupils to sit a whole paper to give them a sense of the length of the NC tests and improve their stamina and understanding of test conditions, think about how to make this exercise as worthwhile and dauntless as possible. Feedback should be formative, focused and pitched according to the pupils, using your own knowledge of an individual’s level of ability and resilience. Scores can be troublesome, as can seeing a test paper with lots of crosses or zeroes. If selective feedback can be delivered verbally it may feel less overwhelming or disheartening. And if patterns of performance or common misconceptions can be spotted, targeted activities to address these can drive improvement, without needing to dwell on incorrect answers.

3. Perspective is key.

The NC tests are important to schools and many pupils are keen to perform well, but they are by no means the endpoint of a pupil’s educational journey.

Pupils need to know that they should try their best but also be reassured that these tests serve merely as a measuring point along their way. Ideally, pupils will see assessments as stepping stones on the way to the next challenge and as a low risk opportunity to show what they can do.

Looking for more top tips from NFER's in-house assessment experts? Browse our range of 'Brushing up on assessment' guides.