Children's knowledge of the 3Rs when they start reception classes will be used to measure the quality of primary schools, under proposals for a national system of "baseline assessment".
The proposals, to be published in a consultation document by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority next month, are expected to include a national assessment framework, rather than a specific test.
But the authority will insist on assessments which can be used to measure the "value added" by individual schools to pupils' progress as well as provide information to help teachers plan children's work.
Legislation will be needed to implement the plans, but a general election will intervene before it can take effect.
The proposals will anger early-years experts and teachers, many of whom believe such assessments are not reliable enough for "value added" baselines and will lead to increased workload. Instead, they favour assessment on entry only for diagnostic purposes.
Consultation by SCAA showed that teachers felt that assessment for learning about the children and planning was much more important than measuring the value added by schools.
Controversially, the proposals will require only literacy and numeracy to be assessed, although schools will be encouraged to include other aspects of children's development. This will lead to fears of a narrowed curriculum, and concerns that children from deprived backgrounds will be labelled. However, some existing LEA schemes, only cover literacy and numeracy. Julie Fisher, of the Early Years Curriculum Group, said that for children coming into school, oral skills were more important than reading and writing.
Under the proposed framework, assessment will also have to include enough detail to identify children's needs, including special needs; enable progress to be monitored; involve parents; be unobtrusive for children and manageable for teachers.
SCAA was asked by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard last January to develop draft proposals.
It is now clear that any national system of baseline assessment will not be used to judge nursery provision for the voucher scheme, and is not intended to be used in national league tables. However, it is understood that SCAA plans to monitor samples of schools to collect national data.
The proposals will set out three models, to be piloted during the consultation period, all of which will be able to yield numerical scores. One is a checklist of reading, writing and maths skills, another is the checklist plus a profile of each child across a range of areas including creativity and physical development, and the third asks teachers to choose "best fit" descriptions set at three levels in six areas. It is like the "level descriptions" used in teacher assessment at ages seven, 11 and 14.
The consultation document, approved this week by Mrs Shephard, represents a victory for value added hard-liners in SCAA and the Department for Education and Employment.
An earlier document, leaked to The TES, included a non-value added model, which asked teachers to record their observations about each child across six "areas of experience" on blank forms. This was preferred by much of the early years lobby and many teachers. It is now to be offered up in conjunction with the checklist.
Pen Taylor, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "We are keen that any baseline assessment should be developmental. You can't measure children's development with numbers at that stage."
John Bangs, of the National Union of Teachers, said: "To go headlong on a value added approach rather than guidelines on assessment I think is running before you can walk."
Peter Tymms, of Durham University, believes, however, that valid, reliable baseline assessment is possible, and must be based on research. He said there is a wide variety of children who do not make as much progress as would be expected, and that progress was more varied in reception classes than for older children.
Research from Durham has shown that baseline assessment is being used in about half the local authorities in England and Wales, and about half of those were planning or running schemes which would enable them to make judgments of schools' contribution to pupils' progress using national curriculum tests. SCAA, which drew up the proposals, does not want to undermine the work done locally, but existing schemes may have to be tweaked to fit in with the Government's criteria. All schools would have to carry out baseline assessment from September 1998.
It is understood that SCAA's literacy and numeracy checklist is to be refined and researched to pinpoint the most accurate predictors of future performance. The list would not be mandatory, but would be available to schools wishing to check their scores against national data.
Jean Haigh, until recently a senior manager for test development at SCAA, favours the level description model. "There are many issues that haven't been thought through," she said. "Are we about predicting what children will achieve at seven or are we about helping them to achieve more?" She felt the most important purpose of baseline assessment should be to help teachers raise standards. It is important to identify children's attainments on entry, and that model was working towards that goal, she said.
Draft tick-list of literacy and numeracy skills
* Holds books appropriately whilst 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 own pattern * orders objects by size * demonstrates 1:1 correspondence by matching item to item * identifies ordinal position in sequences * counts objects accurately * recognises numerals * writes numerals * adds using objects * subtracts using objects * solves numerical problems using addition and subtraction.