National Reference Test 2021: Factors Affecting Attainment

Louise Benson, Bethan Burge, Jose Liht and Kondwani Mughogho

20 December 2022

Each year the National Reference Test reports the proportions of students achieving at or above three key GCSE grades in English and mathematics. The NRT is therefore uniquely placed as a Key Stage 4 assessment which compares performance directly at ability level, to contribute to the evidence on the impact of disruption to education due to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the 2020 NRT administration was largely unaffected by Covid (the testing window ended before schools were closed for the first national lockdown), the outcomes from that year provide a useful pre-Covid measure of performance. Comparing these outcomes with the NRT outcomes in 2021 enabled us to identify any significant changes in performance in 2021 which could be attributed to the impact of Covid-19 on student performance in English and mathematics.

The main NRT outcomes, reported in the 2021 Results Digest, showed overall performance on the NRT in English and mathematics over time, indicating how the subjects may have been impacted as a whole. For mathematics there were, as we might have anticipated given the disruption to education in the preceding year, significant drops in performance. For English, the outcomes were perhaps more surprising: performance was very similar, on average, in 2021 and 2020, with no significant differences at any of the three grade boundaries.

NFER undertook additional analysis of the NRT 2021 data to explore two important research questions:

  • What school and pupil characteristics were associated with changes in performance in English and mathematics during Covid-19 disruption?
  • Were different areas of the curriculum differentially impacted by the disruption to teaching as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic?

The first report, National Reference Test 2021: Factors Affecting Attainment, describes whether the gaps in performance between students and schools, based on a range of demographic and attainment variables, changed significantly between 2020 and 2021. Two key themes were explored as part of this research: socio-economic factors and prior performance. Additionally, the analysis included a range of other demographic factors at both student- and school-level that could potentially play a role in explaining how the impact of disruption due to the pandemic may vary across the population.

Key Findings

  • For both English and mathematics, there was no significant change in the relationship between the socio-economic status of the student and performance on the NRT between 2020 and 2021.
  • For mathematics there was a statistically significant impact related to being in a school with greater levels of deprivation. Students in schools with higher proportions of students eligible for free school meals experienced a greater decline in performance at grades 5 and 7.
  • There was no evidence that high performing schools or students coped better with the disruption caused by the pandemic. The relationships between NRT performance and previous school and student performance did not change significantly across the two years.
  • Students with English as an additional language (EAL) saw a significantly greater decline in performance in mathematics than students with English as a first language. This finding was not replicated in English.
  • The relationships between gender, ethnicity and students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), and performance on the NRT (either subject) were not found to have changed significantly between the two years.
  • The type of school (e.g. academies, free schools and Local Authority maintained schools), being defined as urban versus rural, and school size were not significant predictors of performance on the NRT, and nor did the relationship between these variables and performance change significantly across the years.