Key stage 2 national curriculum tests 2019: How did boys and girls differ across reading and maths?

Lydia Fletcher

Thursday 26 September 2019

The Department for Education released the provisional report on the 2019 key stage 2 national curriculum tests (NCTs) earlier this month. Key stage 2 performance was similar to 2018; the overall percentage of pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined was 65 per cent (compared with 64% in 2018), with 11 per cent reaching the higher standard in all three subjects.

One key set of figures in this data is the difference in attainment between boys and girls. Of all girls taking the NCTs, 70 per cent achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths combined. This is compared to boys, of whom 60 per cent achieved the expected standard. This leaves a ten percentage-point (pp) gap in achievement between genders, up from an eight percentage-point gap in 2018. As the NCT data is reported as whole number percentages, it must be noted that rounding can potentially increase apparent differences; nevertheless a clear gap is present between boys and girls in reading.

What’s going on with the gender gap?
Investigating this further, the widened gap stems largely from an increased difference in reading performance. There is also a gap between boys and girls in writing; however, this is unchanged from previous years (furthermore, changes to the writing teacher assessment in 2018 mean these data are not directly comparable). Although both boys and girls saw a drop in reading attainment this year, it was disproportionate between the genders; the percentage of boys meeting the expected standard fell from 72 per cent to 69 per cent (3pp), whereas for girls this percentage fell from 79 per cent to 78 per cent (1pp).

Looking across the four years since the new national curriculum was first assessed, Figures 1.1 and 1.2 (below) show the attainment of boys and girls in reading and maths. The first graph shows that for reading, although performance of both genders follows a similar trend, boys’ reading attainment is consistently significantly below that of girls’, with some indication that the gap may be widening.

Figure 1.2* shows that for maths, the genders perform comparably, with around one percentage-point difference in performance across the four years. Maths performance shows a more steady increase in the percentage reaching the expected standard over the four years for both genders, compared to the more variable percentages for reading.

Figure 1.1

Figure 1.2

Does this pattern follow at the higher levels of achievement?
For reading at the higher level, the gap remains similar to that seen in relation to proportions reaching the expected standard, with roughly a ten percentage-point advantage for girls over boys (Figure 2.1 below). However, in maths, boys outperform girls with 29 per cent of boys achieving the higher standard in 2019, compared to 24 per cent of girls (a 5pp difference). In contrast to what is seen in reading, at the higher end of maths achievement, boys are performing better than girls. This is a fairly stable trend across the four years (Figure 2.2 below).

Figure 2.1

Figure 2.2

This indicates that the general pattern of girls outperforming boys is reversed only at the higher level of maths attainment. It is important to note that the gender gap in reading performance remains larger than in maths performance for pupils at both the expected and higher level of attainment.

What might this difference tell us?
From the data presented in this 2019 provisional report, with comparison to previous years, we can see that there is a steady increase in the proportions of pupils reaching the expected standard in maths, but reading is an area of more difficulty for boys compared to girls. Looking at the KS2 trend over time for reading, the 2014/15 results show a 4pp gender difference in the proportion of pupils meeting the expected standard (level 4) at that time, which may suggest that this gap is gradually increasing. However, with the new curriculum being first assessed in 2016 and the new expected standard, it’s not possible to make any definitive conclusions.

Is this reading attainment gap something that is present from an early age?
Looking back to the year in which this 2019 KS2 cohort undertook key stage 1 (KS1) NCTs (2015), the reading attainment gap between boys and girls was 5 percentage-points. This suggests that the reading attainment gap widens between KS1 and KS2, but is present by age 7. An early and ongoing focus on encouraging boys to read and talk about their reading is important in the endeavour to prevent this gap widening. However, as mentioned above, the introduction of the new curriculum prevents any firm conclusions from the extant data. Those completing KS1 NCTs in 2016 will undertake KS2 NCTs in 2020. This may begin to give us more comparable data from which we can draw conclusions about the development of the reading attainment gap. Further analyses might go on to investigate these trends internationally.

For more articles and free guidance on assessment in primary schools, visit the NFER Assessment Hub.

*Figures taken from the 2019 Statistical First Release (SFR) data tables; (table N2a). The revised SFR for 2017 reported the data point for boys’ maths as 75, so there is 1pp discrepancy depending on which report is looked at. We have chosen to report the data released with the 2019 SFR.