The new National Curriculum tests: What can we infer from the sample questions?

In July the Standards and Testing Agency (STA) published sample questions, mark schemes and commentaries for the new National Curriculum tests that will be introduced from summer 2016. There are separate samples for English reading, English grammar, punctuation and spelling and mathematics for each of Key Stages 1 and 2 and also for the new Key Stage 2 sampling test for science. These can all be downloaded from the DfE website. The final versions are due to be published in July 2015.

These exemplars do not give a complete picture of the new tests. For example, they do not

  • include full sample tests (there is a selection of questions instead)
  • reflect the curriculum coverage of the final tests
  • reflect the ratio of question types that will be in the final tests
  • reflect the range of question difficulties that will be in the final tests.

What the exemplars do provide however is an indication of how the new elements of the curriculum will be tested. Note that STA do not recommend that the sample questions be used for assessment purposes as they have not been fully trialled – they are for guidance only.

The sample questions focus on the new areas of the curriculum and there are repeated references to ‘increased demand’. In general, the level of difficulty of questions is higher overall and pupils need to do more to achieve one mark than they do currently.

The language around what each question is testing is a useful introduction for teachers to some of the jargon being used for analysis of Depth of understanding, Computational complexity etc. Such analysis means the test writers will have to be more careful about the overall difficulty level and think very carefully about what the pupil has to do in the process of answering each question. This should lead to improved year on year consistency.

Below are some subject specific comments on the sample materials for the tests.


The maths samples indicate that there will be increased expectations around formal methods. This is demonstrated in:

  • the mark-scheme e.g. for Key Stage 2 it says: ’Only the use of a formal written method will gain the method mark should the pupil calculate incorrectly’
  • long division and multiplication
  • the square paper background rather than a plain one for many of the questions.


Key pointers from the reading sample materials are:

  • The sample questions focus mainly on the new areas of the reading programme of study that are assessable in a written test format i.e. understanding vocabulary in context; identifying language features including figurative language; distinguishing between fact and opinion; summarising ideas from more than one paragraph; and making comparisons – included in some past papers, but only now an explicit requirement of the curriculum.
  • There is a higher percentage of comprehension questions (40-60% of marks). These will include new questions about the meaning of words in context (including pupils providing their own synonyms), new comparison questions, new summary questions and new questions about differences between fact and opinion (mainly for non-fiction texts).
  • The format of the sample questions is similar, but much harder than that of previous tests in terms of the language of the text chosen and the number of deductive type questions.
  • There is more inclusion of language features and comparisons than previously.

Grammar, punctuation and spelling

The test for Key Stage 1 is completely new. The Key Stage 2 test is significantly more difficult.

  • ‘Where the statutory appendix requires terminology to be taught, this will form part of the test content (e.g. determiner).’ This means that the wording of the questions will be more difficult; they will be phrased to ensure that the pupil has to know the grammatical terminology to be able to answer the question. Pupils will need much more factual knowledge of technical terms in the Appendix to the new curriculum.
  • Teachers will need to know a greater amount of grammatical terminology, and know how to teach it in a more formal way than previously.
  • The level of content is significantly more challenging, e.g. verb forms, subjunctive mood, fronted adverbials. Until now these have been deemed 'Level 6', but now all pupils will be tested on them at the end of Key Stage 2.
  • Finer distinctions are made. For example, pupils will need to be able to tell if a word is being used as a preposition or a subordinating conjunction (the example in the test is 'before'). Currently, pupils would have expected questions where the use of a word was much more clear-cut.
  • Mark schemes show greater emphasis on seemingly arcane elements, the punctuation separating items in bullet points, for example.
  • Context questions are to be included in Paper 2 for Key Stage 1 but are also being trialled for possible introduction into the Key Stage 2 test. If included they will require pupils to filter and scan from longer passages than previously. This will require more advanced reading skills, combined with an understanding of how grammar affects a text.


The Key Stage 2 Science tests will continue to be used with a sample of schools and pupils every two years with the first new test taking place in 2016.

  • The format of having an extended question over two pages remains, but now the biology, chemistry and physics elements have been separated into different tests rather than being mixed within one paper (possibly in preparation for secondary school).
  • The questions relate directly to new the Programme of Study. They start with elements from the lower Key Stage 2 Programme of Study and progress to related elements from upper Key Stage 2.
  • There is more emphasis on ’knowledge and understanding’ than on the skills and processes found in ‘working scientifically’, whereas previous tests had more Sc1 questions.
  • The working scientifically questions are still set in the context of the other curriculum areas and are well integrated.
  • The level of difficulty is similar to the previous 2012 tests.


english, grammar, key stage 1, key stage 2, maths, new curriculum, reading, science

Added to your basket: