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Baseline has 'dubious validity', say academics

Expert panel of academics questions the ethics of giving four- and five-year-olds a test that does not support learning

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The government-proposed baseline test for four- and five-year-olds is “ethically and methodologically questionable” and has “dubious validity” a new report from leading education academics says today.

The report A Baseline Without Basisfrom an expert panel convened by the British Educational Research Association (BERA), says that the government’s proposal to introduce the test is “flawed, unjustified and wholly unfit for purpose”.

The report says the initiative, which is due to be piloted in 2019 and rolled out in 2020, could even lead to nursery children being “coached” for the tests.

The baseline test, which is currently being developed by the National Foundation for Educational Research, is due to be a 20-minute assessment covering literacy, numeracy and, possibly, self-regulation – the ability to manage emotions and behaviour.

Children will take the tests in the first few weeks of Reception, and the aim is to use the results as a baseline for measuring children’s progress, on a school level, between Reception and Year 6.

The government has said the baseline tests would not be used in any way to measure performance in the early years – or to track individual pupils.

Baseline tests 'don't support learning'

But the report states that producing a single number from a short test covering three areas is “misguided” and it points out that “it is hard to justify” giving children tests which do not support their learning.

The panel says that the proposed baseline assessment, which will cost around £10 million to introduce, will not lead to accurate or fair comparisons being made between schools because summer-born children will not be taken into account, pupil cohorts within primary schools are statistically small and there is no recognition of different school contexts.

Gemma Moss, the chair of the panel and a former BERA president, said: “It is both ethically and methodologically questionable to use Reception baseline assessment (RBA) for school accountability. As currently proposed, RBA is likely to produce results with little predictive power and dubious validity, while the assessment of very young children is hard to justify when it is not being used to support a child's learning.”

The other members of the panel are Harvey Goldstein, professor of social statistics at Bristol University; Pamela Sammons, professor of education at the University of Oxford; Gwen Sinnott, an independent education performance consultant; and Gordon Stobart, emeritus professor of education at UCL Institute of Education.

'The sheer folly of baseline assessment'

The report also states that the issue of accountability will be muddied by pupils, teachers and headteachers leaving and joining different schools during the seven years between Reception and Year 6.

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of early years organisation Early Education, said that the report showed the "sheer folly" of the baseline assessment.

"It is sheer folly for the government to persist with plans to introduce a Reception baseline assessment if it cannot provide valid and reliable data," she said. "Holding schools to account on the basis of flawed data will do nothing to improve standards in schools." 

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: "The Department for Education will spend nearly £10 million on introducing tests of four- and five-year olds that cannot produce reliable results, and will not help teachers support children in their learning. This is a gross misuse of resources." 

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The reception baseline assessment has received support from the schools sector and is being designed and delivered by the National Foundation for Education Research, with pilots in schools across the country, to make sure it works for teachers and their pupils.

"The assessment is just the first half of a progress measure and an important step in making sure that schools are recognised for the education that they provide to all their pupils whatever their background, including those in Reception classes, Year 1 and Year 2.‎"

 

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