Parents agree with the principle of baseline assessment, but need convincing about the details, report Estelle Maxwell and Diane Hofkins. Now that the Government has enshrined in law its plans to assess four and five-year-olds when they enter reception, it will have to make them clearer to parents. Intent on measuring and comparing schools, ministers have failed to recognise that parents will see these tests as a judgment on them and their children.
The TES interviewed eight parents of five-year-olds and under-fives, most of whom said they favoured "baseline assessment" in principle. But they were concerned about children being labelled as less intelligent because they are younger than average when starting school or have been less well prepared by their parents or in pre-school.
Public consultation on proposals for a national framework ended this month, and the scheme will be finalised in the new year. From September 1998, all schools will have to assess their pupils on entry.
Schools will be able to use their own approaches, as long as they meet the official criteria. The results are meant to help teachers to judge what steps to take next with each child, and also to give public accountability, to measure the difference that schools have made to each child's progress.
A total of 360 schools tried out three types of assessment during the last half-term. One type is a check list of skills in reading, writing and maths, while the other two cover a broader range of abilities, including social skills and creativity.
Most members of The TES' group of parents criticised the check list for assessing what skills had been acquired by children before entering school rather than their innate intelligence. They feared that the younger four-year-olds entering reception would be disadvantaged.
Ironically, the voucher scheme is leading to growing numbers of local authorities admitting all four-year-olds to reception in September, which could skew their baseline results, since previously many had started as "rising fives" in January or April.
Clare Turner, a mother of four, says: "The tests are too hard at just four for my children, but at nearly five they would have been able to meet most of them. As a parent it would be useful to have guidelines outlining what your child should be achieving by the time they start school. But these proposals seem rather optimistic for a large number of rising fives."
The parents were also sceptical about how the framework would show "value added" by primary schools, and feared that it would inevitably lead to more league tabling and competition.
The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which devised the proposals, is aware of these concerns. Tim Coulson, professional officer for assessment, said SCAA planned to provide information for parents about reasonable expectations for children on starting school. But they recognise it is hard to generalise, particularly as children start school at different ages.
The authority's own survey, conducted by MORI, showed that most parents accepted the idea of baseline assessment, and understood the difference between assessment and formal testing. But they did not welcome SCAA's efforts to ensure that parents would be involved in the process; they were determined to trust the teachers. "Parents were almost overwhelmingly against the idea, " said Mr Coulson. "They felt they might not be as objective as the teacher. They would bring their own views of wanting their children to do well. But, overwhelmingly, they wanted a full report back."
Furthermore, those surveyed felt social skills, such as behaviour, making friends, listening and talking, were at least as important as the 3Rs.
This view was reflected by the mothers interviewed by The TES. Helen Hancock, who has twin daughters, felt the tests, apart from those in maths, failed to assess the child's ability to adapt and be flexible with information and reasoning.
She said: "There is no test of speech, fluency, or vocabulary, which is what has to be important for a five-year-old".
Elda Brickwood, a mother of two pre-school children, said: "I would question whether we can really measure a child's development by simply ticking boxes. Teachers can quickly judge a child's attainment on arrival without necessarily testing them, using oral skills and observation."
Camilla Pearse, a mother of three young children, said, "The overall idea of testing children on entry is good and it will help schools with differing intakes see how they have progressed.
"I felt the levels of testing were quite good, the harder things on all three sections were quite advanced, and I doubt whether many five-year-olds could write in sentences on entry to school."
Penny Bass, a primary school teacher, has three children aged under four and a half. She said her expectations as a teacher would be that most children would be able to do most of the tests on the draft tick-list by the end of the first term, but not on the first day.
She said: "My main over-riding feeling is that children are bound to end up being labelled from the moment they enter school. Those speaking English as a second language or those without an educated background will be disadvantaged from day one."
Her daughter, Laura, now four and a half, could do some of the items on the draft tick-list if cajoled: "The maths tests are more in line with what I would expect her to be able to do, but she could not attempt to write sentences, or spell unfamiliar words; it is an awful lot to ask of them."
Anna White, whose five-year-old son, Matthew, started at primary school in September after two years at a private nursery school, said she would be happy to see him tested on all the aspects of the draft tick-list.
She said: "Matthew is the eldest in his class, and this makes a big difference. He reads fluently and has known his alphabet for some time. There is a huge age range in his class, and this obviously affects what children are capable of doing.
"Though I feel this is a relevant tick-list, I am not sure about the politics behind it. It sounds as though it is schools which are being assessed, not children."
THE DRAFT CHECK LIST
* Holds books appropriately while turning the pages and retelling the story from memory * Uses his or her memory of familiar text to match some spoken and written words * Recognises letters by shape and sound * Reads familiar words in a range of contexts * Reads simple texts
* Uses symbols and letters in his or her own writing * Writes his or her own name with appropriate upper and lower case letters * Hears sounds in words and writes the corresponding letters in sequence * Attempts to write sentences * Attempts to spell unfamiliar words
* Creates his or her own patterns * Orders objects by size * Demonstrates one-to-one correspondence by matching item to item * Identifies ordinal position in sequences, such as first, third and last * Counts objects accurately * Recognises numerals * Writes numerals * Adds using objects * Subtracts using objects * Solves simple numerical problems using addition and subtraction