Give early years tests the human touch, say critics

13th February 2015 at 00:00
Computers can't judge social development, they argue

New baseline assessments for four-year-olds have come under fire for expecting children to sit a series of computer-based tests while not taking account of social or emotional development.

The government is introducing the checks from September 2016 so that pupil progress can be measured from the beginning of Reception until the end of primary school. The names of six approved test providers have been published, along with details of how they will carry out the assessments.

But concerns have been raised that many pupils will be assessed by computer, rather than through methods that give teachers freedom to use their professional judgement.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said the organisation was "deeply concerned" about the tests. "As a result of the restrictive criteria put forward by the government - stipulating that the assessments must primarily focus on language, literacy and mathematics - the majority of the approved baseline tests are extremely narrow in focus," he said.

Assessments from three out of the six approved providers are computer-based. "This risks creating artificial testing situations, which are not only unsupportive for young children but may lead to inconsistent or unreliable results," Mr Leitch added. He was also concerned that the tests would not put enough emphasis on "personal, social and emotional development".

The assessments have drawn sustained criticism from early-years campaigners and teaching unions since the Department for Education first outlined its proposals in 2013. The NUT teaching union is due to discuss boycotting the tests at its annual conference in April.

The Association of Teachers of Mathematics and the Mathematical Association jointly wrote to education secretary Nicky Morgan at the end of last year, complaining that the planned assessments would be "costly, inappropriate and flawed". One-off tests would not provide useful information, they said, but would put pressure on students and schools.

The tests will not be compulsory, but if they are not taken schools will be judged solely on the results achieved by 11-year-olds. From next year, 85 per cent of pupils will need to reach the expected standards in reading, writing and maths or show sufficient progress towards them for schools to avoid falling below the floor target and facing potential closure.

Rob Carpenter, executive headteacher of Woodhill and Foxfield primary schools in Greenwich, London, said he would opt for the assessment that allowed the most room for teachers' observations of children.

"Personally, I wouldn't do a baseline in Reception: all the evidence suggests that we should do it in Year 1 because data from Reception is not as reliable in predicting attainment at key stage 2 - it's like comparing apples with bananas," he said.

"I think schools without a strong early years philosophy will be seduced by the gimmicky approach, by the easy option, which is not best practice in terms of knowledge and understanding of the children."

The six organisations approved to offer the tests are the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University; Early Excellence; GL Assessment; Hodder Education; the National Foundation for Educational Research; and Speech Link. If a provider does not recruit a sufficient number of schools by June this year, they will not be able to offer the baseline test.

Greg Watson, chief executive of GL Assessment, said that children were used to using ICT at home. "We have set out to make our baseline a useful tool for schools and a positive experience for children," he said. "The 1,560 schools involved in our trials have given us very positive feedback on the tablet format."

Jan Dubiel of Early Excellence, whose assessments are based on teacher observations, said: "The key thing about our assessment is that it's not testing at all. It's designed to fit in with everyday assessment practice and judgements that practitioners make of children."

The DfE said the majority of items on each test had to be linked to communication, literacy and mathematics. A spokesman said: "Under our rigorous criteria, the providers appointed to carry out the baseline assessments all demonstrated that they could accurately predict future achievement. The primary checks have not been introduced to track the progress of individual pupils but to measure the starting point of them all.

"We want to see all children leaving primary school with a good standard of reading, writing and maths, and teachers agree that measuring progress is the best way to ensure that primary schools are doing this."

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