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Baseline instincts

The current vogue for testing has now reached even the youngest pupils.

But does it help, asks Geoff Lindsay.

DURING this half-term all

children who started school last month are being assessed to find out what they know and can do. The intention is to use the results to form a baseline against which their future progress can be measured.

We have just reviewed the operation of the second year of statutory baseline assessment on behalf of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Almost 1,000 schools and more than 100 local education authorities and other scheme

providers completed surveys. We also interviewed reception teachers, headteachers and parents in more than 40 schools in 16 authorities using a variety of schemes, as well as baseline assessment officers, principal educational psychologists and other officers in those LEAs.

There are currently 91 different schemes accredited by the QCA. These must assess aspects of language and literacy, mathematics and personal and social development. In practice they do much more.

More than a third of schools reported that their chosen scheme assessed knowledge and understanding of the world; nearly a third assessed creativity and about 10 per cent reported the assessment of spirituality.

Overall, schools were very satisfied with their chosen scheme: 81 per cent considered it

worthwhile spending the time required, even though more than half reported that this tended to be longer than the specified 20 minutes per child outside normal classroom activities. They were also generally satisfied with specific aspects - its ease of use, manageability, clarity of administration, and fitness for monitoring. However, they were less satisfied with the scheme's usefulness with children with English as an additional language.

Most schools start to assess during the first three weeks of the new term, but do not complete until the final two weeks of the seven-week period specified by the QCA. We interviewed reception teachers who reported that they preferred to assess children over several weeks, not recording scores until the end. This enabled them to respond to variable settling in periods, and their need to familiarise with the children. More than half of schools reported that classroom assistant also contributed to the assessment.

The questionnaire showed that about three-quarters of schools used assessment for planning teaching in the first term and target-setting "quite often" or "a good deal", while two-thirds reported grouping for teaching. Baseline assessment also contributes to the identification of special educational needs: about three-quarters of the schools reported this happening at least "quite often", although only half used the results to allocate to the SEN code of practice stages of assessment. Teachers told us the results were indicative but not sufficient to do this.

Reporting to parents is required but schools were still developing good practice. They are concerned about providing scores, especially so early, and some prefer to report towards the end of term one when they can discuss progress. Parents were less concerned with receiving data than having meaningful information from teachers whose judgment they trusted.

The purposes of baseline assessment

Baseline assessment can be used for a number of different purposes. These may be child-focused or school-focused.

Reception teachers give preference to the former, to guide teaching content and arrangements, and aid the identification of children who cause concern.

However, when asked about school-focused purposes we found a tension. For example, while teachers at interview would usually give a child-focused purpose first, head-teachers would usually start with a referene to "value added" or other comparative, school-level purpose. For instance they cited providing evidence for the Office for Standards in Education to indicate the level of children at entry against which to judge key stage 1 results.

Assessing over half a term and recording at the end is clearly not appropriate if a "true" baseline is required because the assessment is not done when pupils start school. Both teachers and heads told us of their concern that this approach may disadvantage the school's comparative "value-added" results if other schools were recording at the beginning. Over that short period children's scores could improve, so reducing the potential value-added when compared with KS1 assessments.

This tension also appeared in another form. While we were carrying out the research, threshold payments were being introduced and some teachers we interviewed were directly involved. One teacher feared that the excellent nursery results would make it difficult for her to demonstrate improvement in her reception pupils.

The future Baseline assessment is now well-established and teachers consider it to be useful. However, baseline results are being used for school-level comparisons, both during OFSTED inspections and informally by headteachers.

While comparisons with other schools using the same scheme could be acceptable, it is not justified to compare schools on the basis of 91 different schemes whose comparability is unknown.

With a few notable exceptions, the data on each scheme is also insufficient to be confident of the reliability of scores, although most schools and LEAs reported moderation systems in operation; added to this is the variation in assessment practice with respect to timing. For teaching purposes this need not be problematic as teachers may use the assessment to provide indicators to guide judgments, here and now, which can be tested out and monitored.

Accuracy is vital, however, if scores are to be treated as true, for value-added purposes, including judgments during inspections. The task is to build on the foundations, the enthusiasm, good practice, and experience of the various schemes, but to investigate their technical characteristics to see which are appropriate, and for what.

* "Evaluation of accredited baseline assessment schemes 19992000: Report to the QCA". Geoff Lindsay, Ann Lewis and Emma Phillips.

Available from the centre for educational development. appraisal and research, University of Warwick pound;5 incl pamp;p. Professor Geoff Lindsay is

director of the centre at the University of Warwick.


81% of schools considered baseline assesment worthwhile

78% of schools use assessment for target setting

73% of schools spend longer than the recommended 20 minutes per child outside normal classroom time on assessment

71% use assessment for planning teaching in the first term

61% use assessment for value-added measures of achievement

36% assess children's knowledge and understanding of the world

29% use assessments to test creativity

11% assess spirituality THE FACTS

* Assessment within seven weeks of arrival at infant school was set out in the Government's White Paper of education reforms.

* The tests were piloted nationally in 1997 and all schools were required to carry out assessment the following year.

* All children in reception are assessed in maths and English. In theory, the assessment should not take more than 20 minutes.

* There are 91 baseline assessment schemes.

* Supporters say it provides teachers with the information they need on what children can do already.

* Critics say results for young children can vary greatly depending on the date at which they are assessed.

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