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'We need baseline tests. The problems of accountability won’t be solved by avoiding assessment'


Robert Coe, professor in the school of education and director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), Durham University, writes:

It won't surprise many to say I support the use of baseline assessment in Reception. Well, I would, wouldn’t I? The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University, where I have worked for the last 14 years and which I now lead, is one of the six accredited providers. Of course I want people to use our assessment. But I hope our record shows something a bit more principled than an opportunistic desire to make a quick buck out of schools: a longstanding commitment to the use of assessment as a tool that adds real educational value to children’s learning.

CEM’s Reception baseline was created by Peter Tymms in 1993 and further developed with Christine Merrell as part of the PIPS Project. Other assessments for children this age were available at that time, but none could be used in schools by teachers to give such a reliable and valid indicator of every child’s developing learning in number and language, alongside information about personal, social and emotional development.

At the time it was an extraordinary achievement. Twenty years later, the assessment has been completed by millions of children; it has been translated into 10 languages; it has been the subject of multiple analyses and countless research papers; even today it is still arguably the best of its kind anywhere in the world, in terms of the quality of information it provides in such a short time for children so young.

And that word "information" is the key. A good assessment used by a good teacher will mostly confirm what they already know. But teachers who have used our assessments say that the value comes when the results surprise you: when it tells you something you would not otherwise have seen. Of course teachers should make holistic judgements about children’s development across a wide range of areas. There is much more to learning than number and language. But I wouldn’t want my child to go to a school in which learning number and language was not a high priority. And I would want a teacher to make holistic judgements about my child’s learning in a wide range of areas that are informed by the best possible developmental and diagnostic information from the best available tools.

The picture I have presented so far is of a rather idealised world. Much heated discussion of baseline assessment has focused on strongly felt concerns about parents coaching their children to do well on the test, teachers depressing scores to make accountability measures look better, inappropriate labelling of children, limiting expectations for children’s achievement by encouraging fixed ideas about "ability", and narrowing the curriculum to exclude valuable activities like play and social development. I hope these things don’t happen, but I fear they may. So why do I think it is a good idea for reception teachers to do a baseline assessment?

I am inspired by the many teachers I know who combine a strong moral and educational purpose with a sophisticated understanding of assessment. They know that those dysfunctional effects are not a necessary part of assessment, but a consequence of choices about how assessment is used. They know that although accountability pressures are real and do encourage game-playing, a teacher’s first responsibility is to do the best for their pupils, not to please Ofsted or school leaders who have a narrow fixation on league tables. They know that without the information that good assessment provides they would find it much harder to identify their pupils’ specific needs and to engage and stretch them appropriately. They know that just because they use a test it doesn’t mean they have to teach to it.

If a broadly-focused, high-quality play-based approach was effective in promoting children’s learning before, then it still will be, and good assessment will just confirm this. Crucially, these teachers work in the same world where others say, “You can’t do that because of Ofsted and league tables.” And they do it anyway, because they believe it is right.

Do we need to reform the accountability system? Yes, and radically. Does it make sense to wait seven years from the time children start school to make a punitive judgement about the school, based on the performance of whatever proportion of that small number of children are still at the same school? Not remotely. But the problems of accountability won’t be solved by avoiding assessment.

We desperately need to find ways of satisfying the needs of accountability systems to demonstrate that schools are doing a good job with public money, or to identify where constructive intervention is required, without incurring the dysfunctional and demoralising effects that are all too familiar to those working in schools. But the baby in the bathwater is assessment; if we throw out assessment in our revulsion at accountability we will lose one of the most powerful tools a teacher can have. For the sake of their learning, our children deserve the best assessment we can give them

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