National Reference Test

What is the purpose of the National Reference Test?
Ofqual’s National Reference Test (NRT) will provide additional information to support the awarding of GCSEs. The information from the test will be considered each year by Ofqual and the exam boards prior to GCSEs being awarded. The NRT will provide information on changes in performance standards over time and will be based on results from a nationally representative sample of students who will take the test shortly before taking their GCSEs. Currently, exam boards have limited evidence of how performance standards can change over time. The test will indicate if, over several years, there is a change in how students perform at the national level, which exam boards can then consider during awarding. The impact of Covid-19 means that in 2021 there are new challenges in grading. The NRT results are an important part of the evidence which will help manage that challenge.

More information about the NRT is available at

Ofqual has appointed NFER to develop, administer and analyse the test on its behalf.

How have schools been selected to take part?
Schools have been selected as part of a sample to participate in the statutory NRT, which will take place in the spring term of 2021. The school sample is designed to be nationally representative of the secondary school population and is based on school size and prior GCSE results. To reflect the importance of the test and to ensure high participation rates, the government introduced legislation that requires the participation of state schools that are selected to take part. For maintained schools, this obligation is placed on the school directly through legislation. For academies and free schools, it is a requirement of the school funding agreement to comply with the relevant guidance, to ensure that pupils at the school take part in assessments, and in teacher assessments of pupils’ performance.

How are students selected to take part?
Schools will be asked to confirm the number of students in year 11 who will be aged 16 by 31 August 2021 and who will be entered for either or both GCSE English language and GCSE maths in summer 2021. (Note: students may not take part if they are taking only the international GCSE, sometimes referred to as a level1/level 2 certificate, in that subject.) If you do not have sufficient information to identify eligible students, please contact NFER for further advice.

NFER will then ask schools to provide a list of all these students. From this list, NFER will randomly sample up to 24 students to sit the English test and a separate group of up to 24 students to sit the maths test. Students will only be selected to take the test if they are entered for the GCSE in that subject. Please note that 24 students is the upper limit of the number of students NFER will sample for each subject; there is no lower limit. Instructions on how to access a list of the students selected to take the test and the subject they have been allocated will be provided to schools in January 2021. Each student will be assigned either the English or mathematics test; no student will take both subjects.

We expect all the selected students to take the test in order to avoid bias in the sample. However, the legislation passed by the government gives headteachers the right to withdraw students in exceptional circumstances.

Headteachers may withdraw students from the test only in the following circumstances:

  • a student requires an access arrangement when taking their GCSE in maths or English language that is not available to the student for the NRT either because it is not permitted by NFER for use in this test, or it is not included in JCQ’s Access Arrangements and Reasonable Adjustments

  • a student has exceptional, temporary circumstances which, had they occurred during the student’s GCSE exams, would have resulted in the student not taking their GCSE exam or being eligible for special consideration, for example:
    • personal illness or requirement to self isolate (for example, due to Covid-19)
    • bereavement of a close family member or friend shortly before or at the time of the assessment
    • serious domestic crisis shortly before or at the time of the assessment which results in the student being emotionally affected at the time of the assessment; and
    • participation in sporting events or other competitions at an international level at the time of the assessment.
  • other circumstances which the headteacher assesses could cause significant distress for the student were they to take the test, such as exacerbation of an existing medical condition.

If you are unsure whether a student’s particular circumstances warrant withdrawal, please contact NFER for guidance.

What does taking part involve?
The NRT will take place in schools from 22 February to 5 March 2021. This testing window is in spring to avoid the main GCSE exam period, but also chosen to be towards the end of of the students’ course of study.

What do I do if the testing window coincides with our GCSE mock exams?
You will be asked to identify three possible date for testing between 22 February and 5 March 2021. If you are unable to provide three dates within this period, please contact NFER and we will work with you to find a mutually convenient testing date.

How will the test be administered?
One or two representatives from NFER will come to your school to administer the test. NFER test administrators will be trained in and comply with all public health requirements in place at the time of testing (including the use of PPE) and will follow current Government advice and guidance in relation to Covid-19. All of NFER’s test administrators are trained teachers and have enhanced DBS checks. One of NFER’s administrators will telephone your nominated school contact before they visit to arrange the most convenient time of day for the testing to take place and to confirm all arrangements. They will bring all the materials required for testing along with them on the day and they will take away with them the completed tests for NFER to mark. They will liaise with you in advance of the administration to ensure that they understand and can follow any specific Covid-19 policies or protective measures that are in place at your school. Please arrange for a teacher or another member of school staff also to be present throughout the session.

What is the composition and timing of the test?
The English test comprises a reading and a writing component. For both English and maths, the test lasts one hour. Schools should plan for a total test administration time of at least one hour and 30 minutes, to allow for students to be seated and have instructions read to them by the test administrator. After the test, students will be asked to complete a short five minute survey about their experience of the NRT and their preparation in general for their GCSE exams.

The test has been carefully designed to be accessible to all students who are due to sit their GCSEs in summer 2021. Students will be asked to make their best attempt at the whole test. The test has a look and feel that is similar to the GCSEs and the content of the test is based on the GCSEs to be awarded in summer 2021.

The questions in the English and maths test are aimed mostly at grades 3 to 7 but also include some questions aimed at grades 1 and 2 to help make them accessible to all students. Unlike the GCSE maths exams, the maths test is not a tiered assessment. In the maths test most of the questions are based on the GCSE content that all GCSE maths students have to study and includes some more straightforward questions at the start to help encourage students. A few questions drawing on higher tier content are at the end of the test booklet.

No additional teaching or preparation for the tests by pupils is required.

How will the tests be kept secure?
The security of the test materials is paramount. The NFER administrator is responsible for the security and confidentiality of the test materials. No photocopies of the test may be made by anyone. Test materials must not be taken out of the room during the administration of the test. All teachers or other adults who are present in the test room (for example, those providing support with access arrangements) will be required to sign a statement of confidentiality, declaring that the content of the test will not be discussed with any other person.

What arrangements will schools need to make for the test?
To administer the test we will ask schools to follow DfE’s guidance for the autumn 2020 exam series. Test administrators will comply with public health guidance and requirements in place at that time.
As the students sampled to take part in the test are likely to be from various classes, we ask that schools ensure that preparations have been made for all the selected students to be brought to the test room at the time agreed with NFER’s test administrator. A seating plan should be prepared in advance of the test date, as done for GCSE exams, so students know exactly where to sit when they enter the examination room and which test should be given to them.

The test will be administered under exam conditions similar to those at GCSE. We ask that schools ensure any relevant displays and posters in the test room are covered and desks are positioned an appropriate distance apart so students cannot see each other’s test. Mobile phones are strictly prohibited in the room where the testing is taking place.

For the test, students require a black pen or sharp HB or 2B pencil. Students must not use gel pens. If the student is using a pencil, they must write firmly.

What access arrangements will be made available to students?
NFER will apply access arrangements similar to those used at GCSE. The following access arrangements and reasonable adjustments can be used for any student who is expecting to receive the arrangement/adjustment in their GCSEs:

  • extra time
  • rest breaks and the use of a prompter to help remind students where they are with the test
  • a reader (for the English reading test, a reader can only be used for the instructions at the beginning of the test)
  • a scribe
  • asign language interpreter
  • read aloud
  • examination reader pen – reading pens are only suitable for assisting with reading one or two words in a sentence and are not suitable for all candidates who qualify for a reader. Candidates should be familiar and experienced with using these pens in order to get an accurate reading. Please note that due to the confidential nature of these test materials, Read, Write, Gold software cannot be used. Only the following two JCQ approved pens are acceptable:
    • C-Pen Exam Reader
    • WizCom Exam Pen

The following modifications to the test and computer based arrangements can be used:

  • word processors

    NFER will provide students expecting to use a word processor for their GCSE exams with access to a secure tool in order to type their answers to the test. For this access arrangement, schools will need to provide laptops with internet access for each student.

    Under no circumstances should a student use their own laptop to type answers into any software or tool other than the secure tool provided by NFER, as this could compromise the security of the test.

  • enlarged or modified large print papers
    • an enlarged paper will be an enlargement of the original paper from A4 to A3, which does not specify font size.
    • the modified large print papers available are:
    • 18 pt or 24 pt on A4 paper
    • 24 pt or 36 pt on A3 paper.
  • test printed on coloured paper
    • NFER will endeavour to provide the requested colour or as close a match as possible.
  • Braille versions of the test
    • a Unified English Braille (UEB) version of the test will be available.

Translated versions of the test will not be available. The use of a dictionary is not permitted in the English test. The use of a bilingual dictionary is permitted in the maths test for students for whom English is not their first language and provided that it only provides a translation of the mathematical term, not the definition or illustration.

How will the access arrangements be organised?
NFER will ask schools to provide details of any selected students requiring a modified test or use a word processor no later than 29 January 2021 Instructions will be provided to schools in January to make these requests.

The school is responsible for the provision of other arrangements such as the provision of a scribe or reader. Schools should advise NFER’s test administrator if any students will be given extra time.

Schools should also discuss any access arrangements with the lead test administrator to allow sufficient time for the preparation of these arrangements.
Students that require access arrangements should ideally be accommodated in the main examination room under the supervision of the administrator. If this is not possible due to the specific requirements of the student, the school should discuss this with NFER’s test administrator or with NFER staff ahead of the test date.

What happens if a local lockdown due to a Covid-19 outbreak means that the school will be closed on the agreed test date?
Please inform NFER’s test administrator or NFER staff as soon as possible if school closure will affect the administration of the test, so that an alternative date can be discussed.

How will parents be informed?
We will provide a letter via our school portal that each school can use to provide parents with information about the NRT. We recognise that a small number of parents may not wish their child to take part, but we ask each school to support the test and ensure participation, if necessary by explaining to parents that the school is legally required to enter selected students into the test, as well as reassuring them that individual students’ results in the NRT will not affect their GCSE results.

How will NFER use and protect the data collected?
The data collected by NFER will be shared with Ofqual for the purposes of analysis. All data relating to this project will be kept confidential by NFER and Ofqual, and no individual school or student will be identified in any way in any ensuing reports about the analysis. Ofqual will publish national measures of performance each year. Data from the test relating to individual students or schools will not be provided to the Department for Education, Ofsted or local authorities, and will not be used in any measures of school performance. The results of individual students will not be used in awarding their GCSEs. All data collected on access arrangements for individual students will be securely destroyed after the testing has been completed. If NFER are alerted to a potential safeguarding concern based on the response given by a student during the NRT we will contact the school.

For the purposes of this project, Ofqual remain the data controller and NFER the data processor. Please refer to Ofqual’s privacy notice for more details on how personal data is processed and protected.

How will my school benefit from taking part?
We aim to make participation in this test as easy as possible for schools. We will make every effort to select the date and timing of the test to suit schools, our test administrators will administer the test and NFER will mark it. We will however require a member of staff from the school also to be present during the test to ensure arrangements run smoothly and to help finalise arrangements before the day of the test.

In recognition of the time and resource required to participate in the NRT we will provide each participating school with a cheque for £190. Participating students will be entered into a national draw with a prize of a tablet computer. NFER will provide an information sheet for students that have been selected to participate in the NRT in January. It will give students an overview of the test and why it is important they take part.

We know that schools would like to receive feedback on how their students have done in the test. However, the test is not designed to measure the performance of individual students. It provides information about the overall performance of the national sample of students who take it. So we cannot provide scores or marks for individual students. The test is not used to compare schools’ performance and we therefore cannot provide an overall result for individual schools. Also, we cannot provide feedback on how students have responded to individual questions because we have to keep the test questions confidential to be able to re-use them in the future.
Who can you contact for more information?

If you have any questions or queries about the test, please contact NFER by telephone on 01753 637 383 or by email to