Long read: Is a 'simple' baseline test for four-year-olds about to bring the fight over primary assessment to a head?

Last week, the NEU vowed to disrupt the baseline assessments of four-year-olds. This week, the government announced that NFER had won the contract to begin testing in September 2020. Battle lines have been drawn.

Helen Ward

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In September, around 600,000 four-year-olds will be starting school for the first time – unaware they are at the centre of a maelstrom that is threatening to disrupt primaries for at least the next three years.

Pretty much every one of those children, stepping into school in their as-yet-unscuffed shoes and newly name-tagged jumpers – will be assessed as they arrive. Their teachers will want to know and note, how much they can read, how much they know about numbers, their social skills and their physical ability. It is an essential part of the teachers’ job.

But government proposals to introduce an additional nationally-mandated assessment of four-year-olds – a “Reception baseline assessment” that the government stresses “should not feel any different from many of the existing on-entry assessments” – has irked teachers.

Actually, irked is an understatement. It has angered teachers to the extent that Alex Kenny, an executive member of the National Education Union (NUT section), predicted over Easter that baseline would be the “bridgehead into a campaign that can sink the government’s assessment programme”. Others have talked about “smashing” the whole testing regime.  

But why has the Reception baseline assessment – a speedy, internal check – aroused such rage? Schools minister Nick Gibb has sought to reassure schools, stating that baseline will be a “quick, simple assessment” that “provides a fairer measure for school accountability”.

An earlier version of a baseline test produced by National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) – the contractor that has just won the bid to run the 2020 version – involved pupils “counting teddy bears, plastic shapes and picture sequencing cards, reflecting familiar classroom practice”. So it appears a long way from the high-pressure exams that pupils will encounter later on in their school careers. Yet this new assessment has become hugely controversial.

Part of the reason for the opposition lies in the fact that there was an earlier version of baseline, which the government had to abandon. More on that later.

A more immediate source of anger is the idea that an assessment that will play such a major part in the school accountability system should be carried out on pupils who are so very young, and that it should happen so early in their time at school.

In the words of the hundreds of academics and education experts who have written to oppose the idea:  “The tests risk children’s wellbeing and confidence by interrupting the crucial early period when they are forming relationships and settling into school. 

“And many schools will teach to the test so that early years education will become more narrow and formal. This is not good for children.” 

Fairer accountability

The rationale for the assessment is to make accountability of primary schools fairer. It provides a baseline from which pupils’ progress during their school years can be measured. And the resulting progress measure can then put the spotlight on the work that schools have done, rather than the ability that their pupils already possessed.

Progress scores can give schools credit for the work they do with children who have very low starting points. Schools where 11-year-old children don’t meet the scores expected in reading, writing and maths, can still be deemed “above the floor” – and so exempt from interventions including forced academisation – if those children have made sufficient progress.

But currently, that progress is measured from the key stage 1 Sats, taken at age 7, to the key stage 2 Sats, taken at age 11 – meaning the first three years of a child's education is effectively ignored.

And that is a key reason that, although the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) – now merged as the National Education Union (NEU) – have long opposed the tests, the main primary headteachers’ union supports them.

“The logic of taking a baseline measure as early as is practicable, so that the impact of the reception year is properly recognised, is inescapable,” the National Association of Headteachers’ (NAHT) Redressing the Balance report, published in January 2017, states.

The theory is one thing. But the reality in September 2015, when the Department for Education first tried to put this idea into practice, was much less satisfactory. The assessment was not compulsory. But most primaries did use one of the three available versions and some teachers are still scarred by the experience.


Back with a vengeance

Much of the problem centred on the fact that there were three different versions of this prototype baseline.

The NFER assessment was a mixture of assessed tasks and observations. Training organisation Early Excellence created an observation-only assessment and the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University provided a computer-based test.

But evaluators found that the three assessments did not produce comparable measures of pupil progress – and so could not be used to hold schools accountable for that progress.

In April 2016, the DfE was forced to scrap the idea – for the time being. Today, baseline is back with a vengeance. This week, the government announced that the NFER had won the multi-million-pound contract to trial, pilot and run the assessment for the first two years.

The task of deciding exactly what form those tests should take is not an easy one. Last year’s NAHT report on primary assessment acknowledged that deciding what a baseline should include and when it should be conducted was “highly contentious”, even among its small group of authors.

All three versions in the government’s previous non-statutory attempt at baseline met the criteria of having a majority of questions assessing communication, literacy and numeracy.

The NAHT has suggested an alternative: a single, statutory observational-based teacher assessment that goes beyond a narrow range of literacy and maths skills, with children’s ability to self-regulate – abilities such as focusing attention and controlling emotions – seen as particularly important.

The DfE current proposal has taken on some of these suggestions – it will be a single, statutory assessment – and the government is interested in an assessment of self-regulation as well as communication, literacy and maths.

But what the government has ruled out is an observation-based baseline, the option that around 70 per cent of primaries opted for in 2015. Instead, the new baseline is likely to be test or task-based. Many expect infants will be able to take it on tablet computers. But critics argue that the new approach represents a problem.


'Inaccurate, invalid and unusable'

The More than a Score coalition, which covers 16 teaching and early years’ organisations including the NEU, the British Educational Research Association, the Association of Child Psychotherapists and parents’ group Let Our Kids Be Kids, is also concerned about the idea of short tests in pupils’ first few weeks at school.

It argues that they will not produce valid results showing what children can do and will be at risk of ‘gaming’ – with schools lowering baseline scores to make it easier to show progress later on.

The coalition is also concerned that baseline assessments could lead to setting children into ability groups, presenting a particular problem for summer-born children

Some of these are long-standing concerns. But the government’s rethink following the 2015-16 debacle has produced new ones. They are particularly damaging as it is the very assessment experts who ran the previous baseline assessments who are speaking out.

The government’s opposition to an observation-led assessment led Early Excellence to rule itself out of the running early on. It said that the decision to prohibit observations appeared to be a “purely ideological position” rather than the “expertise and experience of the sector”.

It described the new plans as: “Self-contradictory, incoherent, unworkable and ultimately inaccurate, invalid and unusable.”

At CEM, the other original baseline provider, director Professor Robert Coe cites the fact that the government wants the baseline assessment to be used purely for accountability, rather than formative information for teachers, as a key flaw.

The academic believes the assessment should be designed to help teachers make early interventions where necessary.

“Does it make sense to wait seven years from the time children start school to make a punitive judgement about the school, based on the performance of whatever proportion of that small number of children are still at the same school? Not remotely,” Professor Coe has written.

But the NFER is bullish about its ability to produce a baseline assessment that works.

“Our experience in producing a Reception baseline assessment in 2015 demonstrated that it is possible to undertake a robust assessment of children’s language, literacy and numeracy skills at this age,” Carole Willis, NFER chief executive, said when its successful bid was announced on Wednesday.

“This new assessment is intended to be a cohort-level measure, rather than an individual pupil measure. Introducing such a measure at the start of Reception allows the huge contribution that schools make to children’s progress in the first three years of school to be properly recognised.”

Trials are due to begin in the next academic year, a national pilot in 2019-20 and the Reception baseline assessment is expected to become statutory in September 2020.

The government has said that if the Reception baseline assessment does come in, then it will make the key stage 1 tests and assessments non-statutory from 2023.

It all goes back to trust

It is perhaps unsurprising that baseline has become such an emotional issue.

How could it not be? This is a policy that will affect hundreds of thousands of very young children. It comes at a time when concerns about children’s mental health and the pressure of tests are rising – and when their teachers are already feeling overworked, underpaid, undervalued and mistrusted.

And it is trust that is at the root of the baseline battle that is starting to unfold.

How much trust can the government place in teachers’ own assessments of their pupils? Do teachers trust that their heads will not "schoolify" the Reception year? Do parents trust that teachers will not be setting their child using baseline results? Can headteachers trust that the data collected will not be used to make simplistic judgements on complex situations?

Meanwhile, those four-year-olds will be starting school. And they need to able to trust adults at a time when the adults who decide how they are educated don’t seem to trust each other.

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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