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Baseline assessments – Are they good for children?

Dr Marian Sainsbury and Beatrice Merrick debate the issue of whether baseline tests will help or hinder children's education…

Callum Fauser
by Callum Fauser
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Dr Marian Sainsbury is an NFER Research Associate. She led the development team for the original Foundation Stage Profile at the turn of the century.

In one sense, it is incontrovertible that baseline assessment is a good thing. The four- and five-year-old children at the start of their Reception year are diverse in every way. They bring with them a variety of experiences, capabilities and skills, all developed through the rich learning experiences of their first few years. What teacher would not want to know how far these children have come already in acquiring the confidence, curiosity and articulation that will make them successful learners – or whether they have made a start on the skills that will become reading and mathematics?

In its most basic sense, baseline assessment simply refers to this process of getting to know children’s existing abilities in order to provide effective learning experiences for them. All Reception teachers do this already as an intrinsic part of their professional role. So why the controversy? If everyone can agree that teachers need to assess children at the start of school, why is the idea of ‘baseline assessment’ so repugnant to some? The answer lies beyond its basic meaning and in assumptions about ‘formal testing’, and I believe these mistaken fears about baseline assessment can be allayed by adopting a reasoned and professional approach. To understand this, it is necessary to probe more deeply into what the current baseline assessments look like. The idea that four-year-olds have to ‘sit’ a ‘standardised test’ conjures up a picture of formal examination halls, which is very far from the truth. There are three baseline assessment schemes accredited by the Department for Education (DfE), and they vary considerably, but none of them has anything like a written test paper.

For the NFER Reception Baseline Assessment, for example, we made a principled decision that children should be assessed doing the kinds of practical activities they would experience during usual classroom practice – counting, talking about pictures, making patterns with shapes. The teacher introduces each activity and notes down how it is tackled by the child. Development trials in over 500 schools confirmed that children liked this face-to-face time with their teacher, and enjoyed the activities and the colourful resources. Levelling the playing field Another assumption is that baseline assessment leads to an undesirable narrowing of the curriculum. But while it is true that the DfE only requires mathematics, communication, language and literacy to be included, other areas are permitted. Again, using the NFER scheme as an example, we believe it is essential to take a broader view of children’s development and have designed a ‘Foundations of Learning’ checklist to include the crucial areas of physical, personal, social and emotional development. On top of this, the curriculum for the Reception year remains the broad and well-regarded Early Years Foundation Stage, so teachers do not have the option to narrow it. Other concerns about baseline assessment derive from its place as part of school accountability measures. Whether or not setting targets for children’s attainment is the best way of supporting and improving education is certainly a matter for debate, but it goes far beyond the scope of this article. The fact is that education policy for the last 25 years has judged primary schools by their attainment results. Many people have argued, with much justification, that holding schools responsible for the achievements of their 11-year-olds takes no account of the children’s very variable attainments at intake. The aim of baseline assessment is to level the playing field, providing some measure of progress within the school that is not dependent on children’s home background. There is no incentive for teachers to ‘teach to the test’ with baseline, as artificially high results actually detract from the school’s progress measure. So in summary, the reasoned and professional approach I am advocating looks like this. If schools welcome the capacity of baseline assessment to provide some measure of children’s background on intake, it can lead to a fairer accountability system. If teachers choose a baseline assessment scheme that suits their philosophy and apply it sensitively, it can enhance and structure the process of getting to know the children in those first few weeks.


Beatrice Merrick is chief executive of the British Association for Early Childhood Education

The problem with the government’s baseline assessment scheme is not that there’s anything wrong with doing a baseline assessment of children at the start of Reception. Quite the opposite – teachers normally go through a process of finding out children’s starting points for learning, based on a mix of observing them as they settle in to school and getting information from parents and previous early years settings. That information feeds into how they plan to extend children’s learning by building on existing interests and capabilities, and providing engaging and stimulating opportunities for further learning. The problem is how the government has set up the criteria for the baseline assessment schemes [PDF] so that even the best designed are making compromises in relation to good early years practice. If anything, the time spent delivering the externally-run baseline schemes will interfere with time teachers would normally spend getting to know a new class of children. Administering externally set tests to each child in a class of 30 could easily take up a week of a teacher’s time, time which could be better spent helping children settle in and learning about the capabilities and interests of each unique child. The government’s scheme is not designed for the benefit of children or teachers. It is purely an accountability measure focused on the ‘value’ schools add between the beginning of Reception and the end of Year 6. It is designed to provide a single score, not a broad-based profile. It is primarily focused on communication and language, and literacy and mathematics (the subjects in KS2 SAT tests) – not the full range of areas of learning covered by the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Ironically, this narrow focus is unlikely to be a sound basis for predicting later success in literacy and numeracy, which derives from a much broader set of skills and dispositions – not just from early familiarity with letters and numbers. The assessments are based around a deficit model, requiring scheme providers to ensure that no more than 2.5% of children achieve full marks, and requiring each test item to be scored on a simple yes / no basis. The criteria for the government schemes also take no account of differences in age (they specifically rule out the measures that would usually be used to allow for age-related differences in outcome). This fails to take account of the very different circumstances of a child entering Reception at four years 11 months, compared to one who has just turned four. There are also concerns that they are liable to disadvantage children with English as an additional language and children with special educational needs. Although it’s easy to forget, with all the top-down pressures to start formal schooling ever earlier, the Reception year is still part of the Early Years Foundation Stage. And this already sets the statutory requirements about how assessments should be carried out: “It involves practitioners observing children to understand their level of achievement, interests and learning styles”. Observation of children over time is much more likely to elicit a comprehensive view of children’s capabilities than a brief test. Yet even the one approved baseline scheme founded on observation is constrained by the government’s requirement to score all children within six weeks of the start of Reception, providing a very narrow window for young children settling in to school for the first time to show their full capabilities. The government will be paying around £4 million for tests, which by its own admission “Will sit within teachers’ broader assessments of children’s development – which we know go wider than any single baseline assessment can accurately capture” and therefore seem unlikely to offer any benefit to teachers. They will not help children to feel comfortable and gain confidence in their new surroundings. Even as an accountability measure, these tests are highly questionable in terms of what they purport to measure, and how they attempt to do it.

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