KS2 SATs 2023: Maths Papers Question Breakdown

Originally published Tuesday 23rd May 2023

Now that the KS2 SATS papers 2023 have been released from embargo, we can finally talk about the content in detail. Here, we analyse this year’s maths papers to provide a comprehensive question breakdown and domain coverage analysis for Year 6 teachers and school leaders.

If you’re short on time, or need a summary to share with staff, don’t miss the free download: Maths SATs 2023 Question Breakdown: Staff Discussion Points

Before we start, it’s worth remembering that although we’re now onto our second year of post-Covid SATs, this set of papers are the first to have been written since the school closures of 2020 and 2021.

As this cohort of pupils have missed a substantial portion of school time in Year 3 and Year 4, we were interested to see whether the question writers might make any allowances for learning gaps from these key years. 

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What to expect from this article

We’ll be taking a look at a breakdown of all three papers, but with a greater focus on the two reasoning papers. These are the papers which generally provide the most discussion and debate. It’s where the test paper authors really try to reveal the depth of children’s understanding through the creative (and sometimes downright bizarre) nature of the questions.

We’ll look at the level of difficulty and cognitive demand, question structures and content coverage and compare this year’s papers with previous years’. We’ll finish by reflecting on our own predictions from 2022 and use our insights to make new predictions for SATs 2024.

In this blog, we’re only focusing on the maths papers as we can draw on our knowledge, experience and expertise as online maths one to one tutoring providers. If you’re looking for analysis on the English Reading test or the Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar (SPAG) test, you’ll need to supplement our insights with other sources!

Download Free Resources

Maths SATs 2023 Question Breakdown: Staff Discussion Points

See the 15 lessons you should take from our question-level analysis of the KS2 SATs 2023 maths papers. Great for staff meetings.

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Read more:
What Are SATs?: A Comprehensive Guide
The Best Year 6 SATs Practice Papers: Available As Free Downloads

Level of difficulty and cognitive demand

The first question on everyone’s lips after each paper is, ‘how hard was it?’ and ‘was it harder than last year?’

So how did this year compare to previous years? Here’s a brief look back at some of the key observations made by Third Space Learning over the last three cycles of past SATs papers, before sharing our thoughts and analysis of the 2023 papers.

KS2 SATS 2018 Maths Papers Question Breakdown

“The papers were the same level of difficulty as the previous years…..The last three questions on each Reasoning Paper continue to the be the most challenging….The visualisation aspect of the cognitive domain was tested more frequently this year than in previous years….It is likely to be technically possible to achieve the expected standard without using any Year 6 maths content…Some of the contexts certainly remain things that would only exist in ‘SATs Land.”

KS2 SATS 2019 Maths Papers Question Breakdown

“The papers all seemed to have massive ‘cliff edges’ in difficulty this year….The overall cognitive complexity of the questions was higher than in previous years….The amount of work required for one or two marks was higher than previous years….The level of spatial awareness and processing required was also high.”

KS2 SATS 2022 Maths Papers Question Breakdown

“Mixed response to the level of difficulty and cognitive demand.….Fair in regards to challenging those children who should be aiming for greater depth in maths…..The question images tripped up some children on at least 2 examples….The proportion of questions testing Year 6 content has reduced…..Contexts for questions seemed much more relatable…..Question setters showed an impressive ability to over-complicate”

The 2023 SATs paper resulted in another year of mixed responses to the level of difficulty and cognitive demand

Post-SATs reactions from colleagues, pupils and social media again proved to be a completely mixed bag across all three papers.

Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023
Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023
Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023
Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023

Despite the mixed reactions, the overall feeling was that the 2023 maths papers were more challenging, with 73% of respondents to the 2023 Third Space Learning Review of Maths SATs Teacher Survey saying they felt the maths papers were harder than 2022, with many feeling the Paper 2 was considerably more challenging.

With this in mind, it may come as a surprise to many that the 2023 papers contained the lowest percentage of Year 6 content in the last 5 cycles of SATS exams (36%).

Even more surprisingly, Paper 2, perceived to be the most challenging, had a considerably lower percentage of Year 6 content than previous years – less than a quarter of the paper (24%) was content from Year 6. See below for a more detailed analysis of the year group coverage.

Some did feel the paper was particularly challenging for children bordering the expected level, with those with a higher level of fluency able to work through at a much quicker pace.

Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023

Question 13 of Paper 3 was a prime example of this:

SATs questions from 2023 SATs Paper 3

Pupils attempting to solve this as a calculation would have lost a considerable amount of time for what was only a 1 mark question. More fluent pupils were able to quickly spot that there was in fact no calculation required to solve this question

Overall, the papers did provide a fair assessment of the ability level of pupils, with clear opportunities for students to demonstrate their fluency, reasoning and problem solving skills and an appropriate level of challenge for those students working at greater depth.

Looking to develop pupil maths fluency beyond SATs? Try Third Space Learning’s most popular resource, Fluent in Five. This daily scheme helps to build arithmetic skills through regular daily practice.

No ‘cliff edge’ and a more gradual increase in difficulty

In previous reviews, we have talked about a ‘cliff edge’ in terms of difficulty. While some users on social media did feel this to be the case again, an increase in difficulty within a paper should not come as a surprise.

Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023

This has generally been the format in recent years, with 2023 being no different. In all three papers this year, the questions were reasonably straightforward up to a certain point. Importantly, there wasn’t a ‘cliff edge’ with questions suddenly making a jump to becoming more challenging. The questions had a more gradual increase in difficulty.

For example, in Paper 1 the level of difficulty increased from Question 20 onwards with the first 2 mark question.

Question 20 from SATs paper 2023

Paper 2 increased in difficulty from Question 17 with the introduction of the first multi-step problem, involving addition followed by short division.

Question 17 from Paper 2 SATs 2023

In Paper 3, Question 16 was the first multi-step question with a simple subtraction calculation, followed by long division.

Question 16 from SATs paper 3 Question 16

The number of marks did not always match the amount of work required

Over the last few cycles of SATs papers, there has been a tendency for questions to be included which required a higher level of processing and cognitive demand than would be expected for the marks allocated. 

This year was no different, with many complaining that the level of work required to solve questions didn’t correlate with the one or two marks to be awarded.

Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023
Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023
Facebook comment on SATs papers 2023

The question which prompted the most discussion for this issue was Question 24 on Paper 2.

Question 24 Paper 2 SATs Paper 2023

This question required students to work out the percentage of pupils who chose ‘very important’. Then, pupils needed to calculate 47% of 1200. This had a high level of cognitive demand for the allocated 1 mark.

Pupils would benefit from training in identifying the questions which require a significant amount of processing for the number of marks allocated. Rather than risk missing marks later in the paper, children who work at a slower pace should be encouraged to make a note of these questions and complete them at the end of the paper. This will avoid pupils wasting valuable time and potentially not finishing in time. 

The proportion of questions testing Year 6 content reduced once again this year

This follows a 10% drop from 47% in 2019 to 37% in 2022, with only 36% of the questions from 2023 being Year 6 content.

This increases the possibility of pupils being able to meet the standard or get a score above the standard in the Year 6 tests having only been exposed to content in the Year 3 to 5 curriculum. 

Whilst obviously not a recommended tactic, this is something teachers should consider when identifying where to focus interventions to support pupils who may struggle with the higher level content.

Table showing KS2 Maths SATs papers analysis

Analysis of the year group coverage by individual papers makes for interesting reading, particularly in light of these being the first papers created since the pandemic.

For Papers 1 and 2, there has been a decrease in Year 6 content, with a corresponding increase in content from Year 5. However, the opposite is true for Paper 3, where Year 6 content increased and Year 5 content decreased from 2022. 

Content from the Year 3 curriculum dominated

Both Paper 1 and 3 had an increase in Year 3 content, with 19% of Paper 3 from the Year 3 curriculum.. Remember, this is the year group this cohort of pupils were in when the pandemic hit! Whether this was a conscious decision or not remains to be seen.

Table showing Paper 1 - Arithmetic content distribution in 2019, 2022 and 2023
Table showing Paper 1 - Reasoning content distribution in 2019, 2022 and 2023
Table showing Paper 2 - Reasoning content distribution in 2019, 2022 and 2023

Breakdown of the 2023 year group coverage by paper

Across the three papers, there is roughly a split of one third being content from Lower Key Stage 2 and two thirds being content from Upper Key Stage 2.

Pie chart showing 2023 Arithmetic Paper 1 breakdown by Year Group
Pie chart showing 2023 Reasoning Paper 1 breakdown by Year Group
Pie chart showing 2023 Reasoning Paper 2 breakdown by Year Group
Pie chart showing 2023 percentage of questions by content domain

The expected standard could be achieved with no Year 6 maths

Although we don’t yet know the scaled scores for 2023, if the expected standard mark remains at 52 – 55%, then pupils could realistically reach this in the 2023 SATs even if they hadn’t caught up on learning gaps caused by the pandemic.

It is difficult to judge whether the test paper authors have taken this into account based on the year group content and expected standard mark from the 2022 papers (which were written before the Covid pandemic). 

Table to show the percentage required to pass expected standard and percentage of questions from non-Year 6 content

Question structures for the 2023 SATs papers 

Context for the questions were generally relatable

SATS writers have been known to use unfamiliar or sometimes bizarre contexts for some of the questions which adds an unnecessary extra layer of challenge for certain children.

As with the 2022 SATS, the questions were generally relatable to children, including the previously mentioned pie chart question (Q24, paper 2) which was based on a survey regarding the importance of having a break from screen time. 

Other questions which included relatable contexts included:

Paper 2, Q4

Paper 2, Question 18 SATs paper 2023

Paper 2, Q18

Paper 2, Question 4 SATs paper 2023

Paper 3, Q16

Paper 3, Question 16 SATs paper 2023

This year was no different and included the traditional SATs favourite question of ‘how much change’. It just wouldn’t be the same without at least one of these questions popping up each year!

Paper 3, Q19

Paper 3, Question 19 SATs paper 2023

However, not all of the questions were as relatable. For example, the question about the giant man could have been challenging if pupils could not put into context just how tall he was.

Paper 2, Q21

Paper 2, Question 21 SATs paper 2023

The level of spatial awareness required was high

As has been the case in recent years, spatial awareness was needed to solve several of the questions. This is an area teachers don’t always give as much attention to as it can be challenging to teach.

Two questions in Papers 2 and 3 required children to reflect shapes or identify lines of symmetry and ensuring pupils had access to mirrors was essential for both these questions. 

Interestingly, both Paper 2 and 3 had a spatial awareness question for Question 12, with the question on Paper 3 being more challenging and requiring students to visualise 2D nets and 3D cuboids. 

Paper 2, Q12

Paper 2, Question 12 SATs paper 2023

Paper 3, Q12

Paper 3, Question 12 SATs paper 2023

The 3 mark question yet again appeared near the end of Paper 3

We are now well aware that a 3 mark question will appear somewhere in the two maths reasoning papers. For the past few years, it has appeared in Paper 3 and this year was no different, appearing three questions from the end.

As with previous 3 mark questions, the extra mark doesn’t mean it is a more challenging question. It isn’t a question only for the greater depth pupils. The 3 marks are often due to the increased number of steps rather than the increased level of complexity or cognitive demand.

What is important for children tackling these questions is that each step of the question is carefully thought through. Teaching of this style of question needs to focus on breaking down the problem into individual steps. The calculation required at each stage can then be thought about. 

With the increased number of steps, there is a higher risk of making silly errors. For example, in the question below, pupils may misread the question and calculated the number of pupils who do play a sport rather than the number who do not

It is important that children are regularly exposed to 2-step and multi-step problems throughout the year so that this type of question doesn’t come as a surprise and pupils don’t lose marks unnecessarily.

Paper 3, Q21

Paper 3, Question 21 SATs paper 2023

Content coverage across all 3 papers for the 2023 SATs Papers

Table to show KS2 Maths SATs papers analysis percentage of questions by content domain

Since 2017, there has been an overall increase in the percentage of questions assessing calculation and fractions, decimals and percentages, with ratio, proportion, measures and shape all reducing in coverage. 

This high proportion of certain questions does fit with the curriculum coverage throughout KS2, with considerably more time spent each year in the teaching of calculation, fractions, decimals and percentages than other curriculum areas. It is clear that these are the key areas to focus on, particularly for the borderline children looking to pick up the crucial extra marks. 

The arithmetic paper covered content domains in an identical distribution to 2022

Table to show number of questions in content domain in Arithmetic paper from 2019, 2022 and 2023

The breakdown of the Year 6 arithmetic test by content domain followed an identical structure to the 2022 paper, with very little variation from 2019. As with previous years, a significant proportion of the paper is focused on calculation and fractions, decimals and percentages, with only a few questions outside of these.

Table to show detailed breakdown of topics required for SATs 2023 arithmetic paper
Detailed breakdown of topics required for SATs 2023 arithmetic paper

‘Answer = question’ continues to be a key element of the first half of the paper

As with previous years, the answer box being positioned before the question is a popular question style and one that children should have a significant amount of experience in throughout KS2. 

In the first 8 questions of the 2023 arithmetic paper, 4 were presented with the answer box at the start.

Paper 1, Q2

Paper 1, Question 2 SATs 2023

Paper 1, Q6

Paper 1, Question 6 SATs 2023

Similar questions were presented with increasing difficulty throughout the paper

As we’ve seen before, similar questions were presented throughout the paper. Sometimes these increased in difficulty as with the adding fractions example below. However, topics were also repeated without increasing in difficulty, as seen in the percentage of amount questions. 

Both of these concepts were also seen several times throughout the 2022 arithmetic paper, so we can reasonably expect they will make an appearance in the 2024 paper.

Table to show the repetition of questions throughout paper in SATs 2023 papers

Pupils need to be prepared for questions presented in more than one way

Children need exposure to questions being presented in different ways. In this question, children need to realise it is better to be solved as a fraction of an amount question, rather than by multiplying fractions, despite it not containing the word ‘of’.

Paper 1, Q36

Paper 1, Question 36 SATs 2023

Predictions for the SATs 2023 papers from 2022. How did we do?

Arithmetic paper predictions 

In our 2022 analysis, we predicted we would see multiplying a fraction by a fraction, which was the case. What was surprising was that this question was the first of the fraction calculation questions, before any of the adding fractions questions.

Paper 1, Q14

Paper 1, Question 14 SATs 2023

Reasoning paper predictions from 2022

After no time questions were included in the 2022 papers, we predicted time would make a return in 2023 which it did!

Paper 2, Q1

Paper 2, Question 1 SATs 2023

Paper 3, Q15

Paper 3, Question 15 SATs 2023

We also accurately predicted that drawing and/or measuring angles using a protractor would return, as it did in Paper 2.

Paper 2, Q14

Paper 2, Question 14 SATs 2023

In 2022, we also predicted that estimation would appear on the 2023 paper. It didn’t make an appearance this year, so we might need to look out for it in 2024…

Summary of missing content in SATs 2023

What topics were missing from the Arithmetic test?

From our analysis most arithmetic topics were covered, with only a few missing which we may see in 2024:

  • Multiplying mixed numbers by an integer
  • Adding/subtracting whole numbers with more than 4 digits

These topics on the other hand have made several appearances in both the 2022 and 2023 papers. Could they appear for third year running in 2024?:

  • Adding and subtracting fractions
  • Percentages of amounts
  • Multiplying 3 and 4 digit numbers by 2 digits.
  • Division of 3 and 4 digit numbers by 2 digits.

The overall key to success in the arithmetic paper is to make sure that your pupils have a very secure understanding of the four operations and calculating with fractions, decimals and  percentages.

What topics were missing from all the 2023 papers?

The content for each question are detailed on page 4 of the mark scheme. According to the listed domains, the following areas were missing from this year’s papers.

  • Number and place value: Identify, represent and estimate numbers (N4), Solve number problems and practical problems (N6)
  • Calculation: Identify factors and multiples, prime and composite numbers (C5),
  • Fractions, decimals and percentages: Count up and down in hundredths (F1), thousandths and decimal equivalent (F6b), use written division methods where answer has up to 2 decimal places (F9c) Simple measure and money problems involving fractions and decimals to 2 decimal places (F10b)
  • Ratio and proportion: Solve problems involving relative sizes of two quantities (R1), Solve problems involving similar shapes where the scale factor is known or can be found (R3) 
  • Algebra: Find pairs of numbers that satisfy an equation with two unknowns (A4), Enumerate possibilities of combinations of two variables.
  • Measurement: Compare different measures (M1), Estimate different measures (M2) Convert time between analogue and digital (M4a), Solve problems involving converting between units of time (M4), Use all 4 operations to solve problems involving measures (M9b)
  • Geometry: Properties of Shape: Draw 2D shapes given dimensions and angles (G3), identify angles (G4), calculating area (M7), calculating volume (M8)
  • Geometry: Position and direction: Plot specified points (P3b)

Content predictions for 2024 Maths SATs Papers

Based on the content coverage over the past few SATS cycles, and in particular the content missing from the 2023 papers, the following topics have a good chance of appearing in the 2024 SATS:

  • Ratio problems involving relative sizes of two quantities
  • Scale factors
  • Converting between analogue and digital time
  • Identifying angles
  • Calculating area
  • Volume of cubes and cuboids

And finally…Chen is back! 

As always, the biggest question on everyone’s lips leading up to the tests was whether the infamous Chen would make an appearance this year. After the disappointment of seeing no sign of him in Paper 1 and 2, in Paper 3 we were in for a treat with a starring role in Q1!

Facebook comment on SATs Maths Papers 2023
Facebook comment on SATs Maths Papers 2023

Social media was awash with puns from happy teachers.

Facebook comment on SATs Maths Papers 2023

The biggest talking point after Paper 3 wasn’t just the fact that Chen was back, but unexpectedly was back as a girl. 

Facebook comment on SATs Maths Papers 2023

What now?

With almost two months to go until schools finish for summer, the question for Year 6 teachers is, ‘what now?’

Taking the foot off the pedal is fine – for a short time. The children have worked hard for months and will need a break from the intensity, but maths learning can’t just stop. There may be elements of the KS2 maths curriculum which were skimmed over to ensure the main topics were covered in time for SATs, or topics the children haven’t fully grasped, but will need for Year 7 maths.

Once the results come back in July, it’s important that Maths Leads are given the opportunity to analyse the papers to fully understand how their own cohort have done in each of the content domains. This is the ideal opportunity to identify areas of strength within the school, but also highlight areas which may need an increased focus for the next academic year.

Of course we will be doing lots of analysis at a national level ourselves in July as well as looking at how the 1,000+ schools we’ve supported through SATs have performed. Make sure you’ve signed up to our emails and we’ll let you know as soon as the SATS results 2023 analysis is available.  

The main job left for Year 6 teachers now (alongside end of year preparations: plays, assemblies, residentials etc…) is to ensure the children are as ready as they can be for the big move to Year 7.

But don’t forget to celebrate all your and your pupils’ hard work!

Further reading:

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