As OF September, every primary school in England and Wales will be required to carry out formal assessments of children starting school. These "baseline assessments" will happen in reception classes for four-year-olds or in Year 1 for five-year-olds, and will provide both information to help teachers plan for each child's learning needs and a basis for value-added analysis of their subsequent progress. Similar assessments are about to be introduced in Scotland, though they will not be legally required.
It is now generally accepted that assessment is an essential feature of good educational practice, though the type used depends on its purpose. In general, if it is concerned with day-to-day planning of the teaching and learning process, assessment based on observation and professional judgments is more appropriate. If, on the other hand, it is to provide information on a learner's overall achievement, assessments based on objective measurements are often better.
Since the introduction of national testing by previous governments, a sea change has taken place in the purpose of assessment with the information gained from it now required to evaluate the effectiveness of schools. It is no longer accepted that all schools are doing a good job, and in Scotland and England, accountability and new management practices have heralded the concept of "value-added". Scottish headteachers, directors of education and inspectors are all interested in evaluating the effectiveness of schools. The Scottish Office task force recommended that "the Scottish Office and education authorities should complete work to establish a national database which will allow relative value-added measurements to be made for all schools".
It is not only the "value-added" requirements that have prompted these uses of assessment for evaluative purposes - the present Government's policy of raising education standards also plays a role. In order to assist the process of raising standards, considerable investment is now taking place in the early stages of a child's education. Schemes are being put in place in most education authorities in Scotland to identify children "at risk", and to tackle any possible learning difficulties. There is also a growing recognition of the need to identify and challenge very competent children through assessment at an early age.
The basis of early assessment varies considerably. In some instances it is related to child development, while in others it is related to progress in basic educational skills like numeracy and literacy. It can also be broadly curriculum-based, covering each area of national curriculum guidelines.
Views about the structure of the curriculum will inevitably affect the content of any assessment scheme. In the Scottish proposals, the baseline assessments have been designed to be broad-based and rooted in the professional judgments of teachers. In the pilot procedures they have been conducted in the second term of Primary 1, to give teachers time to formulate sound judgments about each child's achievements.
The purposes of baseline assessment in Scotland will be:
* to inform the planning and resourcing of appropriate learning opportunities for all children; * to identify children who may be at risk or may have special educational needs; * to provide a baseline for each child against which future achievement can be compared; * to provide information for schools and the education authority for management purposes; * to inform local and national decisions aimed at raising levels of achievement, school improvement and school effectiveness.
Selected aspects of learning have been identified by a team, co-ordinated by HMI, that map onto both the curriculum framework for children in their pre-school year and the 5-14 guidelines. For each aspect of learning, a number of features have been drawn up that describe a range of achievements which teachers are being asked to assess. The procedures for conducting the assessments have been piloted in seven authorities. All the P1 teachers were asked to complete assessments for each child in their class by the end of March. This month the pre-school version is being piloted and results will be forwarded to the appropriate primary schools to inform P1 teachers about the children's achievements.
The results of the pilot will be analysed by a team of researchers from three Scottish universities - Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow. On the basis of their findings, the Minister for Education will decide on the next phase of implementation in Scotland.
Eric Wilkinson is head of Glasgow University's department of education