Trust the teachers, not the tests

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Ministers told baseline assessment must be founded on detailed knowledge of the child

A SCOTTISH approach to baseline assessment for children starting school should use the professional judgment of teachers rather than external tests, the Government has been told.

This is among a series of recommendations from academics involved in piloting a baseline assessment scheme on behalf of the Scottish Office (TESS, last week).

Details were revealed at a Glasgow conference last week by Eric Wilkinson of the school of education at Glasgow University, one of the leaders of the project.

The proposals, which have been sent to the Scottish Office, acknowledge that the use of teachers' judgment to set down the baseline requires "further refinement". The study also recommends a "longitudinal" pilot to follow the progress of pupils through primary after their initial assessment.

Implementation could begin as early as spring next year in pre-school centres, with primaries taking part from the following August, the authors suggest.

Despite criticisms about the subjective nature of teacher judgments, Professor Wilkinson said it would give full play to teachers' professionalism and to their detailed knowledge of the child.

He also said there was consensus in favour of baseline assessment taking place in primary 1 in the second term, giving teachers time to get to know the children. Some critics believe this is too late, but Professor Wilkinson argued: "It must be seen in the context that this is only the first of 11 years of compulsory education."

Although the Scottish scheme was piloted in 44 pre-school centres as well as 26 primaries, the recommendation to the Scottish Office states: "While the process of assessment should begin in pre-school, it should not be referred to as baseline assessment at this level. The prime responsibility for establishing baseline assessments is the prerogative of the primary 1 teacher."

If the proposals are accepted - eventually by the Scottish parliament - the approach will be markedly different from that south of the border. Primary schools there have been obliged by law since last September to test children by the end of the seventh week after they start school, a regime that is now raising doubts over its rigidity.

Schools in England and Wales are allowed to choose their own baseline assessment scheme but it must be one of nearly 100 approved so far by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Joyce Watt of Aberdeen University, another of the project leaders, said the vast majority of staff who took part in the pilot preferred the Scottish alternative. "It was seen as fairer because it draws on teachers' background knowledge of the child built up over a period of time," Dr Watt told the conference. "It is not a test and it trusts teachers' professionalism."

But there were reservations over labelling children and highlighting failure at an early age.

The conference was also much exercised by the timing of baseline assessment, to the point where Kathy Fairweather, chief inspector of schools with responsibility for assessment, described the term baseline as "probably not a helpful concept".

"There should be less concentration on when is the baseline and what is the baseline, and rather more on the bigger picture," Ms Fairweather said. "For example, should we define a pre-level A level or should these stages be free of 5-14 attainment levels? And crucially, how can we avoid the fresh start at the beginning of primary 1 when we have had enough trouble with it at the end of primary education?" The project team recommended that "urgent attention be given to the relationship between baseline assessment and assessment at level A (5-14)".

Dr Watt underlined the need to build bridges between pre-school and primary staff when she said the pilot had found a number of primary 1 teachers who were sceptical about the reliability of pre-school assessments. The view from primary was that pre-school staff had an "inflated" view of children's levels of achievement.

The recommendations of an Inspectorate review of 5-14 assessment are due to be published shortly and will include the establishment of "valid procedures for assessing the capabilities of children when they enter school".

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