IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Changes to Key Stage 2 maths tests have affected teaching and learning, research reveals

16 December 2019

Changes to Key Stage 2 mathematics tests have meant that teachers’ teaching and consequently children’s learning has been affected, UCL Institute of Education (IOE) research has found.

Teacher reading with primary pupil in class. Image: Phil Meech for UCL Institute of Education

The study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, involved the researchers interviewing 30 Year 6 teachers both before and after the 2016 change to the Key Stage 2 mathematics assessment. 

The researchers found two significant factors in amending the structure of the paper and removing the mental maths paper.

National Curriculum levels

In 2016, national curriculum levels were removed and instead scaled scores were introduced. Previous papers had begun with easy level 3 questions, had level 4 questions in the middle and finished with more difficult level 5 items. According to teachers, ordering by difficulty level allowed lower attaining children to access the test, and would build children’s confidence and motivation.

In the new assessment, the tests have a random order of items according to difficulty level, instead of a gradual increase in difficulty. This change seemed to reduce children’s motivation to take tests as they were discouraged when encountering a difficult item at the start of the test.

This also appears to have had a profound impact on how teachers teach. In particular, teachers talked about moving towards a more ‘mastery style’ of teaching where they ensure that all students master the basics before they move on to teach more complex skills or more challenging topics, such as algebra or geometry.

Mental Mathematics

Another 2016 change was the removal of the mental mathematics paper. This has been replaced by an arithmetic paper with more complicated questions which cannot be answered by mental calculation alone. In some questions, credit may be given if children show their working and use a traditional algorithm. This seems to have triggered a major overhaul in the planning of a teaching week. Teachers who were interviewed explained that they had moved away from frequent mental maths sessions and now rehearse for the arithmetic paper each week. The participants felt that a huge amount of practice was required to achieve the speed necessary to successfully complete the paper. 

Writing in the paper, the researchers state: “Our study findings indicate that changes in the 2016 Key Stage mathematics test have caused a shift in teaching with an emphasis from conceptual knowledge towards procedural knowledge.

“We expect this shift to strengthen students’ instrumental understanding of mathematics and their use of written methods for calculating and following procedures to solve calculations using for example column methods of division and multiplication.

“However, the test in its current form suggests a reduced emphasis on a relational and conceptual understanding of Number and Calculation and of ‘mental strategies’ advocated under the National Numeracy Strategy. Given the important role of the Key Stage 2 test in prioritising what is taught, we suggest that Key Stage 2 mathematics tests need to be scrutinised for items which explicitly support the development of mental and flexible problem solving, while also ensuring teachers are supported in teaching mental strategies for problem-solving.”