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Toe on the baseline

Peter Tymms has a recipe for successful Reception assessment.

Reception class is one of the least talked-about parts of our educational system, but one of the most important. Pupils make enormous progress in Reception. We know this by assessing pupils when they first arrive in school and again at the end of the year.

Good teachers have always assessed children when they arrive in school, partly to be more effective in their teaching, but also so that they can know when things are not progressing as they should.

We are now in a much better position to carry out this initial assessment than ever before. Over the years researchers have conducted a number of important studies that have identified important landmarks in the cognitive development of children. They have also developed efficient assessment techniques which have put us in a better position than ever to improve the education of young children with the assistance of high-quality assessment. But what should be assessed?

Many assessments on entry include some aspect of language development. The most efficient way to tackle this is probably to look at vocabulary. This is particularly important for children for whom English is an additional language and for whom the first period at school may well be dominated by language acquisition.

It also makes sense to include number work in the assessment and the simple counting of items may be the best starting point. This can be carried out in the child's own language. However, vocabulary and counting alone would not be enough for most purposes.

An interesting addition involves assessing grasp of concepts about print. The child is asked, for example, to pick out "someone who is reading" from a picture. A number of similar questions can also be asked. The idea is that before starting to read a child will know what reading is, what a book is, and so on.

But the best indicator of how well a four-year-old will be reading at seven is simply the number of letters that he or she can correctly identify. Of course, many children (about one-third, we have found) do not know any letters when they arrive at school.

Nevertheless, this should form an important part of any procedure intended to look at the progress of children. (Relative progress is often called "value-added".) A few children not only know all the letters but can read when they start school.

Very good reading at this stage can highlight special needs and it is important to provide an opportunity for children to demon-strate this early.

Special needs research has also shown that there are some children who appear to be doing well in many ways but who have real difficulty in spotting words that rhyme. They have low phonological awareness - an early indication of dyslexia - and may well have difficulties learning to read. Some assessment of phonological awareness on entry to school makes good educational sense.

On the numerical side a rather dated view was that young children cannot do sums. This is quite clearly incorrect - it all depends how the question is asked. If you ask "what is two plus one?", almost no four-year-old can answer. But if you say "if you had two toys and I gave you one more how many would you have?", many can answer.

All of the above approaches have been incorporated in the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) Baseline Assessment. The assessment is tailored to each child so that, although the full assessment contains more than l00 items, just l0 to 20 minutes is needed to assess each child and no one child sees all the items. This efficient way of assessing is also available in multi-media format.

The child sits with an adult in front of the computer and responds to requests from the program, which records responses and decides what to move on to. (The teacher controls the mouse.) PIPS gives teachers an immediate, accurate and reliable assessment of individuals as well a picture of the whole class. After a year, they can see the value added to their pupils and class. Never before have we been able to get such valuable information in such a short time so accurately.

When an independent researcher carries out the same assessment as the teacher we get, very largely, the same results. PIPS also provides a solid indicator of future performance for planning the year ahead and forms a very useful base for value-added.

Readers may be wondering about the personal and social development of the child, the date at which they enter school, their own month of birth, their prior experience of nursery and playgroup.The whole picture can appear to be so fraught with difficulty as to suggest that baseline assessment is an impossibility. This is most certainly not the case and many of the apparent difficulties disappear once one looks carefully at the problem.

For example, consider the different experiences of children before they start school full-time. Some will have been to nursery, some have had very stimulating home backgrounds and so on. Do these background factors need to be probed? The short answer is no, they do not.

PIPS has shown that the progress children make from the moment they start school full-time does not depend on whether they have been to nursery or on their family's income, but on their starting point - their stage of development, as shown on the initial assessment.

This, most emphatically, does not mean that nursery is unimportant - children who have been to nursery start at a higher point than those who have not. What it does mean is that a child's progress, which is all that a school can be responsible for, is not related to nursery attendance. The same is true of month of birth. August-born children start, on average, at a lower point on the scale than September-born children but their progress is not dependent on month of birth.

This distinction between level of attainment and progress is crucial. Children's level on entry depends on a host of factors associated with their first few years of life, but their progress towards literacy and numeracy after entering school full time is much more the responsibility of the school.

What we have seen quite clearly in the PIPS project is that for four to five-year-olds the most important factors associated with progress towards literacy and numeracy are, in order of importance: u Attending school; uThe child's assessed starting point at the beginning of school; uThe school attended.

This is not meant to close the door on the many interesting questions about home background, attendance at pre-school, age at entry and so on. These are being tackled continuously in the project and newsletters are being sent to participating schools.

But the crucial information for schools lies in the initial assess-ment and in the tracking of progress.

At the end of the Reception year, pupils in the project are assessed again and the children are asked about how much they like school and the various things that they do there. Teachers also record their observations of the pupils' behaviour patterns. It is at this time that the first indications of progress, in comparison with thousands of other pupils in the project, become available.

We have found the Reception class to be one of the jewels in the crown of the English educational system. Pupils make quite dramatic progress during their time there, they enjoy it, parents are pleased with it and many teachers find working with this age range particularly rewarding. Of course some pupils fare better than others and some Reception classes are more successful than others.

We have also found more variation between schools in the progress made by children in Reception than in any other year group. Given this it is surely important for teachers to know how well their children are progressing compared to similar children in other schools.

Pupils can now be assessed on entry to school in a reliable, valid and enjoyable fashion. For the benefit of our children and for the profession, schools need to take this on board with enthusiasm, before they are forced into something that makes little educational sense.

Peter Tymms is director of the PIPS project, University of Durham

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