Why testing four-year-olds as they start school is a bad idea

Too young to fail. Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

The coalition government is to introduce the testing of young children soon after they enter primary school at the age of four or five.

English children are already tested far more than children in most other countries and if our four and five year olds are tested, they will be amongst the very youngest children in the world to undergo a formal assessment of their abilities and achievements.

Some people think this testing is long overdue; many others think that it is not only a waste of time but it is very damaging to young children’s confidence at a time when they are having to adjust to new surroundings and new ways of learning. Is the testing then a welcome development or a harmful activity?

The government believes that testing is necessary to find out where children are at the beginning of their formal education so that their progress can then be mapped out and eventually assessed at age 11 and later at age 16.

The tests are supposed to measure not only the children’s progress, but also how good the schools are that they attend. Children will be given a baseline test when they start reception, and are expected to have achieved a new standard by the end of primary school. It all sounds very sensible and straightforward. But is it?

What to ask

Do we have the know-how to devise tests for children at such a young age? Many of us in education don’t think we do. It has taken a long time to develop tests for 11-year-olds and yet these are far from perfect, as many parents will know from the experience of their own children. If tests for very young children can be devised – and it’s a big “if” – they will take years to develop, yet the proposed tests are supposed to start in 2016.

Part of the problem lies with the children themselves. They learn in very different ways and at different rates, so developing tests that are fair to all is difficult, perhaps impossible. Also at that age children are particularly volatile. Not only do they find it difficult to sit still but they change from day to day, almost minute to minute at times. How can a test capture that changeability?

Children come to school with a wide range of achievements but the proposed tests are only likely to look at a fraction of these. Many of the most important skills such as self-confidence, wanting to learn, willingness to cooperate with others and a degree of personal independence ,cannot be measured or tested at all.

Early literacy and numeracy are important, of course, but not all-important and not as important as emotional security which is the foundation of all school learning.

Impact on children

Which brings us to the effects of the tests on the children themselves. They may not fully realise the importance of the tests but they will soon pick up signals if their parents or teachers are anxious about them, as many will be.

The result will be many worried children. This worry could get in the way of their early learning and will threaten their enjoyment of the challenge of a new school. Some of the most anxious children are likely to be the youngest, who could be almost a year younger than their class-mates taking the same tests depending on when they were born in the school year.

Would you like to take a series of tests just weeks into a new job and tests that could well label you “good”, “OK” or “poor”? Presumably not, but that’s how many children will feel just weeks into school.

Lastly, the government assumes that children’s performance at five can be compared meaningfully with their performance six years later. But how reasonable is that ? Not only are the children taking the test different people, but the tests themselves are different and their results are not comparable.

All this leads me, and many other teachers, to believe that the tests are likely to be harmful. Of course, we do believe that children’s achievements on entry to school need to be recognised and built upon but not through tests conducted so early in their school lives.

We think that class teachers are best placed to find out where young children are and what they need to learn next on the basis of observing and working closely with them during their first few months in school. Such assessments are likely to be much more sensitive to individual children’s needs than any tests provided by the government

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