Make the best of baseline tests;Books;General

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Peter Tymms on a batch of texts that offer a guide to pain-free assessment

BASELINE ASSESSMENT: practice, problems and possibilities. By Geoff Lindsay and Martin Desforges. David Fulton. pound;15.

PLANNING AND IMPLEMENTING ASSESSMENT. By Richard Freeman and Roger Lewis. Kogan Page. pound;35 (pound;19.99 paperback).

MAKING SENSE OF BASELINE ASSESSMENT. By Marian Sainsbury. Hodder amp; Stoughton. pound;9.99.

Assessing young children should be fun, at least for the youngsters. It can also throw up some surprising results, as one teacher found when trying to assess the phonological awareness of Katie, a four-and-a-half-year-old just starting school. She correctly repeated the words "nonsense" and "jackdaw" when asked to do so, but resolutely refused to say "panorama" - because her mother had told her not to swear.

Katie enjoyed the assessment, as do most children starting school. But many adults have learned to associate tests with stress, even though they may regard the local pub quiz as a good night out.

This life-time experience of testing can colour our responses to the introduction of compulsory baseline assessment and the increase in school-based assessment. Here are three new books that set out to illuminate a complex subject.

Geoff Lindsay and Martin Desforges's well-researched and thoughtful book goes beyond the scope of its title. It looks carefully at the history and purposes of baseline assessment, including the difficulties of identifying special educational needs. The authors also outline the features of effective assessments.

Lindsay and Desforges are sharply and rightly critical of the official criteria, which have allowed 90-odd schemes to become accredited with no need for the technical quality to be addressed. They suggest that "significant errors may arise, possibly contributing to harmful outcomes for children and for schools".

Issues of reliability and validity are given a full chapter. This alone should be an important contribution to the development of high-quality baseline assessments. The authors also examine in detail the broader issues surrounding the identification of special educational needs and discuss the code of practice thoroughly and fairly.

The book is less incisive on value-added and the use of data for school improvement. The basic description of value-added is simplified to the point where it almost becomes misleading and there is too much reliance on analyses published in newspapers. But this is a minor quibble. Anyone who wants to learn more about the present state of play in England in relation to baseline assessment and its implications should read this book. It also provides a good set of references.

Planning and Implementing Assessment provides a much broader perspective. It is packed with ideas and summaries of various types of assessment, noting purposes, practicalities, dangers and necessities. It has clearly been written with HEFE lecturers in mind, although the authors try to appeal to a broader readership.

Early years teachers are unlikely to find the text of much relevance. But for teachers and lecturers of secondary pupils and above this is a source book of ideas, although it is not strong on the fundamentals of assessments.

Marian Sainsbury's Making Sense of Baseline Assessment attempts to provide a clear introduction. She gives teachers advice on preparation and using the information generated by assessments, and warnsabout the dangers of over-interpretation.

The book also provides some insight into four out of about 90 accredited schemes, but deliberately avoids advice on how to pick a baseline. In fact, this short book avoids anything "complex" to the point of not mentioning reliability by name, preferring instead to refer to "consistency". It also omits to discuss validity.

But advice is given on the most complex aspect of baseline assessment - value-added calculations involving multi-level modelling. Readers are given a bullet point list of essential requirements for value-added analyses. This prescriptive approach is strangely out of kilter with the rest of the book.

Furthermore, the advice contradicts the most recent detailed investigations into the topic carried out as part of the Value Added National Project for the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (now the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority), to which no reference is made.

Peter Tymms is reader in education and director of the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools project, University of Durham

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