By Marian Sainsbury, assessment expert, former Primary teacher, and NFER research associate
As the new baseline assessment policy develops, opinions are quickly polarising. The Department for Education (DfE) is introducing this assessment from September. Baseline assessment will take place in the first six weeks of children starting school and provides a score for measuring a pupil’s progress from the beginning to the end of primary school and beyond.
In response to the new assessment, a strongly worded open letter has been issued representing those with a range of interests in early years education. They highlight the importance of the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum, with its emphasis on playing and exploring, active learning and creative thinking. In describing baseline assessment as ‘invalid and harmful’, these writers regard any baseline assessment as incompatible with these well-established and well-regarded early years principles and practices.
NFER is one of the six baseline assessment providers accredited by the DfE. We are sure that professionals in schools will make their own decisions about whether to adopt a baseline assessment after carefully considering the issues. We fully appreciate the unique ethos of the Early Years Foundation Stage and believe it is very important to support this.
Where we are concerned, though, is over some of the terms in which the debate is being conducted. The open letter describes all approaches to baseline assessment as ‘standardised baseline tests’ and goes on to a blanket condemnation of these ‘tests’. In fact, the six schemes differ considerably one from another.
I have written in previous blogposts about the principled and research-based considerations that underpin NFER’s approach to baseline assessment. Young children are best able to show what they know and can do by talking and activity, so a written test paper would obviously be invalid.
Our baseline assessment follows good early years practice and is mapped to both the Early Learning Goals and the development statements leading up to this, reflecting both the areas of learning and the Early Learning Goals themselves. Its tasks are active and practical and build on existing classroom learning. In the counting task, for example, the teacher asks the child to count out 20 little teddy bears. Marks are awarded for counting up to five, or ten, or 20. The assessment is conducted face-to-face by an adult who knows the child, using familiar classroom resources. Our assessment also includes an observational checklist covering characteristics of effective learning such as confidence, curiosity and the ability to work with others, so important for success in the new school environment. This takes account of the different ways and rates that children learn and develop. By no stretch of the imagination does this match the popular conception of a ‘standardised test’.
At the same time, though, we have taken the view that, as far as possible, all children should do the same assessment tasks. We believe it is important for school leaders, in the context of an accountability measure, to know that there is as much consistency as possible across schools.
Baseline assessment is not statutory, and some headteachers and their early years leads may well make a principled decision not to introduce it. But it must surely be right that such a decision is based on careful consideration of accurate information, rather than inaccurate generalisations.