Last autumn hundreds of thousands of four-year-old children, as diverse as any group pulled from the population, were each assigned a single number score which purported to predict their future progress in learning. They had been baselined.
They arrived in reception classes from school nurseries, from private or voluntary nurseries, from childminders, and from homes where they had no previous experience of early years provision. They came from families awash with books, talk and outings, from families struggling with the economic and emotional pressures of life, and from troubled backgrounds and foster care. Some were hale and hearty while others had a range of health conditions or special needs. Some were fluent in English and some spoke other languages with little or no English. And some were nearly a year older than the youngest, 25 percent of their life at that age. Yet with no quarter given for such differences, they were labelled with a simple number score within six weeks of arriving at school.
In the face of widespread and vehement opposition (including from CPRT’s directors) DfE had decided on baseline assessment not to support children’s learning, but as a primary school accountability measure for judging schools when these children reach Year 6. Unsurprisingly, recent press reports indicate that lack of comparability between the three approved schemes may mean the baseline policy will be scrapped – possibly in favour of a simple ‘readiness check’. Frying pans and fires come to mind.
The fact is, there is no simple measure that can accurately predict the trajectory of a group of such young children. This is not to deny a central role for assessment. Teachers assess children on arrival in a formative process of understanding who they are, what they know and understand, how they feel and what makes them tick, in the service of teaching them more effectively.
As CPRT has frequently pointed out in its evidence to government assessment reviews and consultations, the confusion of assessment with accountability results in a simplistic number score which ignores the range and complexity of individual learning and development, over-emphasises the core areas of literacy and maths required by the DfE, and places a significant additional burden on teachers in those important early weeks of forming relationships and establishing the life of a class.
Recent research by the Institute of Education into the implementation of baseline assessment confirms that teachers found the process added to their workloads, yet only 7.7 percent thought it was an ‘accurate and fair way to assess children’ and 6.7 percent agreed it was ‘a good way to assess how primary schools perform’.
What is the harm? Aside from the waste of millions of pounds of public money going to the private baseline providers, there is concern about the impact of the resulting expectations on children who receive a low score within their first weeks in school, and who may start out at age four wearing an ‘invisible dunce’s cap’. CPRT drew attention to this risk in its response to the accountability consultation, saying ‘Notions of fixed ability would be exacerbated by a baseline assessment in reception that claimed to reliably predict future attainment.’ For children whose life circumstances place them at risk of low achievement in school, being placed in groups for the ‘slower’ children and subjected to an intense diet of literacy and numeracy designed to help them ‘catch up’ will deny them the rich experiences that should be at the heart of their early years in school to provide them with the foundation they need.
Better Without Baseline echoes CPR’s statement on assessment in its 2010 list of policy priorities for the Coalition government. CPR urged ministers to:
Stop treating testing and assessment as synonymous … The issue is not whether children should be assessed or schools should be accountable – they should – but how and in relation to what.
Unfortunately policy makers are seduced by the illusion of scientific measurement of progress, using children’s scores to judge the quality of schools. Yet there are more valid ways to approach accountability. Arguing for a more comprehensive framework, Wynne Harlen said in her excellent research report for CPRT:
What is clearly needed is a better match between the standards we aim for and the ones we actually measure (measuring what we value, not valuing what we measure). And it is important to recognise that value judgements are unavoidable in setting standards based on ‘what ought to be’ rather than ‘what is’.
Baseline assessment is not a statutory requirement, and this year some 2000 schools decided not to opt in; that remains a principled option for the future. We can hope that government will think again, and remove the pressure on schools to buy one of the current schemes. What is needed is not a quick substitute of another inappropriate scheme such as a ‘readiness check’, but a full and detailed review of assessment and accountability from the early years onward, where education professionals come together to discuss and define what matters. The aim should be to design a system of measurement that is respected, useful and truly supports accountability not only for public investment but most importantly to the learners we serve.
Nancy Stewart is Deputy Chair of TACTYC, the Association for Professional Development in Early Years.