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We must scrap new baseline tests for primary school children

First day at school? Did you prep for the test? Andrew Milligan/PA Archive

From September 2016, within five weeks of starting primary school, all children in England will receive an assessment that will stay on their record. But we have been here before and it didn’t work.

The planned reintroduction of baseline assessments means that another deeply flawed process is set to be brought back against the best judgement of many professionals who know about young children’s learning, many concerned parents, and against a recent lesson of history.

A baseline assessment of children as they start primary school was first introduced in 1997 and abandoned in 2002 because it was an ineffective and damaging policy. The testing of children’s knowledge at just four years old, when they are only just becoming accustomed to the school routine, is not a reliable way to identify young children’s learning and development.

Paradoxically, this is the only test for which it might be in a school’s interest for their pupils to perform badly. That’s because this “baseline” will later be used to identify progress made on other targets over the years – and allow the school to make claims about how well they support children’s learning.

A waste of time

But baseline assessment does not support learning, in fact, it takes teachers away from teaching and so wastes learning time. It is not in the interests of young children, whose learning and other developmental needs are better identified – over time – by well-qualified early years practitioners who observe and interact with young children as they play.

Through their work with young children, teachers and other early childhood educators make judgements about children’s ideas, what children know, their motivation, their abilities, their thinking, their disposition – and how their interests and ideas might further be developed.

Don’t fix what isn’t broken

The present system in England supports this process of assessing young children’s learning through observation and interaction, with judgements about each child’s learning – and learning needs – based upon what children do and say, rather than formal tests.

At the moment, such ongoing assessment begins with careful observation, and focuses on the all-round development of each individual child. Known as the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Profile, this statutory framework was published by the Department for Education as recently as 2012. The framework requires that the EYFS profile is carried out in the final term of the year in which the child reaches age five, using practitioner observation, professional knowledge and parental contributions.

Despite the fact that a new EYFS profile was only introduced in 2012, the intention is to replace the present system with a baseline assessment to be administered to four-year-olds in the first few weeks of their starting school. From September 2016, schools will have the option of continuing to use the EYFS profile – but it will no longer be a requirement – and they can also choose to use one of a number of approved baseline tests. The Standards and Testing Agency is set to publish a list of approved tests soon.

This will move early assessment from a single profile which is developed over time for all children, to an unnecessary (and costly) diversification of approaches. It will mean that rather than assessing children at the end of their first year in school, they are tested within five weeks of beginning. There is also a danger of inappropriate testing practices, which can be stressful for young children, their parents and their teachers.

There are many reasons why this is wrong – and a briefing by TACTYC, the association for professional development in the early years, makes clear the problems that are looming.

We’ve been here before

We’ve tried and tested before. Sean Dempsey/PA Archive

The baseline assessment system was replaced in 2002 because it did not (and could not) yield the data on school performance that is was introduced to provide. This was because as is planned now, there was a choice about which “baseline” to use and so it was not a case of comparing like with like. Issues of reliability and validity over the different tests meant that the value-added element could not be calculated. At the same time, the tests offered little information that teachers did not already know about children in their classes.

The National Framework of Baseline Assessment was introduced in September 1998, requiring all schools to carry out a baseline assessment of children within the first half-term of their beginning compulsory schooling – regardless of whether or not the children were, themselves, of compulsory school age.

Strong protests and professional dissatisfaction eventually led to its withdrawal in favour of a more holistic and formative assessment process for three to five-year-olds. This was introduced in the form of the Foundation Stage Profile in 2002, which was revised in 2008 and again in 2012. Considerable effort and investment has gone into the assessment of children under five since 1997 – and we are now about to return to a system that was agreed to be flawed and ineffective in 2002.

Baseline Assessment won’t enhance learning

Part of the problem lies in a lack of understanding about what assessment is for. It is important to distinguish between assessment for learning and assessment for school management and accountability. No one instrument can be fit for both purposes. Assessment for learning is ongoing and informs the teaching and learning process. It extends children’s learning because it enhances teaching and tells each child’s individual learning story. This is best done by education professionals making ongoing observations, working with children, talking with parents and the children themselves.

All other forms of assessment, including baseline assessment, serve as checks on whether or not learning has occurred, not as a means – in themselves – of bringing about learning. Driven by management and accountability, these kind of assessments elevate scores over narrative accounts of children’s learning, in a format that can allow the “value added” by the school to be calculated.

Assessment is different from testing and measurement. The present system of assessment in the early years means that young children’s learning is identified and recorded as part of an ongoing process. It helps those who work with them to decide what next steps might be useful and it identifies what children can do and helps practitioners to plan new learning opportunities.

Baseline assessment is a single point assessment, more like a test, taking no account of individuals and so it’s not very useful to the practitioners who will be required to carry it out. The government consultation in 2014 resulted in a response urging the rejection a formal baseline at the start of school.

An online petition against the re-introduction of the baseline test launched on January 9 has so far gathered more than 1,600 signatories. Parents, practitioners and others interested in how we assess young children say “don’t do this”. Recent history says “don’t do this”. If ever there was a time when the evidence is overwhelmingly against the reintroduction of baseline assessment, it’s now.

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