Willing and able?

29th January 1999 at 00:00
As a report on baseline assessment comes out this week, Julie Morrice looks at the results of last year's national pilot and discovers how it works in pre-school and primary classrooms

Like it, loathe it, or fear it, baseline assessment is coming your way. This week a report is published which points the way forward for its development in Scotland. But while baseline assessment is already in place in schools south of the Border, it seems unlikely that Scottish schools will be assessing their Primary 1 classes before 2001.

This is partly down to a determination to get the assessment system right first time. A pilot project involving 26 primary schools from seven different authorities ran in March last year, and was followed in May by a pre-school version involving 44 classes from voluntary, private and local authority pre-school groups. Another research project looking at how the pre-school assessment will feed into the primary school is in the pipeline.

"It has been a glorious experience," says Eric Wilkinson, head of Glasgow University's department of education, and one of the authors of the report. "It is an extremely rich collaborative model. It worked well throughout the process, from the civil servants, to the academics, the development officers and the class teachers."

The hold-up in getting baseline assessment into the classroom may have less to do with the exhaustiveness of the research project and more to do with tying this week's report in with the HM Inspectors review of 3-14 assessment, due out next month, with the new Scottish parliament a complication factor.

So, come 2001, what can P1 teachers expect? If the Scottish Office chooses the model of assessment piloted last year, then there is no question of four and five-year-olds being made to sit down and complete a test paper. Eric Wilkinson bristles at the mere mention of the word "test".

"It is a formative assessment," he says, "based on teachers' professional judgment and on their intimate, sophisticated knowledge of the child." For that reason, he feels strongly that the assessment should not be made until the second term of P1. Schools would be given the assessment papers in January and asked to return them by the beginning of March.

Karen Alston, assistant head of Kelvindale Primary School in Glasgow, took part in the pilot project last March. She found it extremely labour-intensive but ultimately worthwhile.

For the assessment, the class teacher is required to fill in three sides of A4 for each child. So to help do this in a class of 33 children, Kelvindale Primary drafted in a learning support teacher and an English as a second language teacher to work with the class teacher and Karen Alston. "There were four members of staff involved over a three-week period. The work wasn't full time, but it involved many man-hours," says Karen Alston.

Kelvindale Primary spent considerable time and resources on the assessment process, realising that there was important information to be gleaned. "Children are coming to us from so many different places and with such different backgrounds," says Alston. "Some can already read or count, so instead of starting them on pre-reading or pre-counting skills, we should be concentrating on other areas of their development."

Karen Alston believes that baseline assessment will not reveal anything that a good class teacher would not find out over time; what it does is get the information more quickly. On the other hand, "If the focus is assessment, where's the teaching?" she asks.

For the assessment period, Kelvindale tried as hard as possible not to interfere with the normal work of the class. But, says Alston, "I'm not naive enough to suggest we succeeded entirely.

"Baseline assessment is a genuine assessment of the child's ability, and that made us keen to make it honest and accurate. It's not about how well the school has done, or how much we are up on last year's targets, and that makes it less threatening for the teacher. There was a feeling of 'Well, if he can't do that, it's not my fault'."

Impressed with the information gathered from the pilot project, Kelvindale decided to introduce its own baseline assessment for this year's P1 classes.

Karen Alston appreciates the unwillingness of many people to label children at the beginning of their school careers, but points out that "as soon as a child comes to school, whether they are officially assessed or not, they are automatically labelled, even if it's simply whether a child can hold a pencil properly or not".

Eric Wilkinson also accepts that people are concerned about children being "labelled" so young. That, he says, is why the assessment is split into eight sections, with each aspect of learning given an individual rating. "That way there is no overall label. You can't have people in the playground saying, 'My child's a 1' or 'She's a 4'."

In the pre-school sector, the feelings against labelling are stronger. Sandra Lipton, headteacher of Nithsdale Road Nursery in Glasgow, would like to see the rating done away with altogether for pre-school assessment. That way, information could be passed from nursery to primary, but without children carrying a label saying, for example, "Good at expressive communication but hopeless at maths".

Informal liaison already exists between Nithsdale and the schools it feeds into, but Sandra Lipton would be delighted if baseline assessment consolidated that relationship. "I would certainly be happy if our opinions and professional judgment were taken on board by primary teachers. Baseline assessment might give it a bit more weight."

On the other hand, Irene Macintyre, head of Pollok Children's Centre in Glasgow, wonders if the pre-school assessment might be too wide-ranging. "Would primary schools really use all this information? There is so much for them to deal with."

Several teachers involved in the pilot voiced concerns about the inappropriateness of the child's record for children whose first language is not English, and for those with special educational needs. The other main area of concern is the need for in-service training of all staff involved in carrying out the assessments.

Assessing young children and using that information within their own school is a thorny enough issue, but pricklier by far is the fact that the Scottish Office intends to use baseline assessment not only for class teachers and individual school managements, but also to inform measurements of levels of achievement and schooleffectiveness.

How the assessment could be used for value-added purposes is still not known. Eric Wilkinson says, "We need to be clear how we're going to measure value-added in a reliable and consistent way that is equitable.

"It has to be equitable. You're judging institutions, and inevitably individual teachers come under the microscope."


The Child Record form issued for the pilot assessment is split into eight "Aspects of Learning": * Personal, Emotional and Social Development * Physical Co-ordination * Expressive Communication * Listening and Talking * Reading * Writing * Mathematics * Understanding the Environment Under each of these headings, there are between six and 14 "features", for example, "Responds appropriately to instructions" or "Can select appropriate mediummedia to express own ideas and feelings". The teacher is intended to record each of these features as either "readily observable", "observable only in some contexts" or "definitely not observable".

Then the child is rated on a four-point scale for each of the eight Aspects of Learning. The four attainment statements on the rating scale are: 1 The child displays very few of these features. Immediate investigation and structured intervention are essential; 2 The child displays some of these features. Most others require attention and planned support; 3 The child displays the majority of these features successfully and is making good progress with most of the others; 4 The child displays almost all of these features consistently and with confidence.

The Child Record suggests contexts in which the features would be observable, but it is up to individual schools and teachers to decide how to carry out the assessment.

"We didn't do anything we wouldn't have been doing anyway," says Karen Alston of Kelvindale Primary. Much of the school's assessment took place during structured play sessions in the open area between the school's open-plan classrooms. "We were up to our armpits in sand, water, paint and glue. A lot of the personal and social development things we did at news' time and circle time."

In the knowledge that children can detect any sort of test a mile away, Alston and her colleagues tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. "We were very conscious of not walking about with a clipboard and pen."

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