Even attitudes can be tested by a set of materials which identifies possible problems and progress from reception onwards, writes Maureen O'Connor.
Pat Preedy, head of Knowle Infants School in Solihull, is convinced the reception class is the time to spot potential learning problems and work out solutions. Among her diagnostic tools are the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (Pips) materials which have been developed at Durham University - and which she has been involved with for two years on pilot and development work.
The assessment covers maths and reading, as well as non-verbal ability, picture vocabulary and what the team calls "cultural capital" - a measure of the educational support a child receives outside school. These are needed to make "value added" judgments on pupils' attainment later in primary school. Children's attitudes to school and to particular aspects of the curriculum are also assessed.
One of Knowle's three reception teachers spends two weeks at the start of the year working one-to-one with each of the 70 rising-fives, most from the school's own nursery class.
Nationally, the Pips team offers schools comparative - and strictly anonymous - data on their performance relative to other schools. Solihull provides its schools with similar comparative local information.
Non-verbal ability is assessed by a culture-fair test which measures the degree to which children are successful in recognising shapes and patterns. Home background is assessed by a series of questions on out-of-school experience: for instance, whether a child attended nursery school, and how often he or she is taken to the library. Attitude and self-esteem are measured by asking children to indicate one of three faces - happy, neutral and unhappy - in response to questions about what they enjoy about school.
"You can measure attitude even with such young children by asking them, for instance, what they feel about sweets and what they think about reading, " Pat Preedy says. "It is worrying if they are saying very early on that they do not like stories or they do not like going into the playground. The children who have negative attitudes towards school are not necessarily the naughty ones, or the most obviously unhappy. Identification is very important."
Once Pips has helped identify strengths and weaknesses, the school targets those children who need extra help. For a slightly negative child, it will try to build in positive rewards. For a slow learner, extra help is provided by a learning support assistant. A child who has a quick fuse may need time out of class.
"Generally we would also ask the parents in for a discussion," says Pat Preedy. "Later we might arrange a session with the child and the parents together."
Following on from the Pips assessment, the reception class is divided into three groups for academic activities. The smallest group is made up of the slowest learners. "They need extra help as a group because of their slower language development," Pat Preedy says.
The children are assessed again at the end of the reception year. It is at this stage that the school can measure progress by the whole year group and by individual children. Results are reported back to the school in the form of a scatter graph set against the norm for the borough's schools as a whole.
The usefulness of the whole system depends heavily on the accuracy of the initial baseline assessment. Pat Preedy says the Pips non-verbal assessment seems accurate, and accords with what parents and teachers have observed. It is basically an intelligence test and can cope, for instance, with a child who arrives without any English.
The graphs offer a precise measure of progress which has surprised some teachers. It is satisfying, she says, to see a child accelerate quickly from a low base. It is also vital to be able to identify the children who fall well outside the normal parameters, either by making very slow or very fast progress. Either way, she says, they will need special attention.
What has also emerged from the early results at Knowle is how much faster children are progressing in reading than in maths. In a school with more than its fair share of able readers, last year no one stood out in the same way in maths.
"This is something we need to give some attention to. It may be that we are over-literary with young children. What I am saying to my staff is 'think maths'."
"The children who have negative attitudes to school are not necessarily the naughty ones ".