Assessment chaos: From Baseline to SATs

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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It has been quite a year for assessment. With a backdrop of parent protests, leaks and anxiety over changing standards, the SATs have been particularly chaotic. On top of this, the long planned introduction of the Reception Baseline was suddenly axed after ministers admitted it couldn’t work. Suzanne O’Connell looks at how schools have handled this assessment chaos

The SATs

It has been an interesting year for primary schools when it comes to assessment. With a new system to implement, changing floor standards and framework, headteachers and their schools have still ploughed ahead and delivered the new arrangements for SATs.

The introduction of the new tests hasn’t gone smoothly for the Department for Education (DfE). The last few weeks leading up to SATs and the week of tests themselves saw the department attempting to shrug off and reduce the potential scandal of leaked papers.

News of the first leak came in April, when it was revealed that the key stage 1 spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG) test had been published along with practice papers on the DfE’s website. In this case, the whole test had to be scrapped leaving many year 2 teachers frustrated at wasted preparation time.

The key stage 2 SPAG also received an early outing. The test was published for around four hours on Pearson’s website prior to the exam taking place. This would have provided teachers who are also examiners with access to the actual test if they were logged in at this time. It might not have been leaked into the public domain, as the DfE pointed out, but it was still a blow for those wrestling with the new test and its potential outcomes.

In spite of union calls for the SATs to be suspended this year, there was never an indication that this might be a possibility. The DfE has ridden the criticisms with a clear determination to ensure the introduction of the new framework went ahead as planned, the only concession being a revised deadline of June 30 for this year’s key stage 1 and 2 teacher assessments.

It wasn’t just teachers and their unions expressing concerns – 2016 saw parents boycotting the SATs and pupil surveys broadcast through the media. In spite of all this, the tests have gone ahead and schools now wait anxiously to find out the results. Their apprehension more a result of uncertain thresholds than anxiety about the performance of their children.

We asked two schools about how they had found the tests and how they felt about the DfE’s handling of them.

Teacher assessment

Perhaps one of the main concerns that schools have had has been how to predict grades when they do not know the benchmark. “Teacher assessment and tracking progress has been very difficult,” explained Hayley Alliston, headteacher at English Bicknor CE Primary School in Gloucestershire. “We have taught an objective-led curriculum and continuously assessed during the lesson, then planned from what the pupils need to know. But this does not easily translate into a progress tracking system.”

Ms Alliston and her team have found the writing moderation to be particularly problematic: “My teachers have been on double the amount of training as the goalposts keep changing. What was acceptable a month ago is not acceptable now.”

English Bicknor is a small primary school and as such is particularly vulnerable to changes in threshold. With only six children in their year 6 they have done their best to interpret the new system and ran an after-school booster group since January with a focus on maths.

The English tests

For Evelyn Davies, headteacher at Coldfall Primary School in London, it is the English rather than the maths tests that seem to have caused most concern. She feels that demands on the children have increased. She explained: “A significant number of children are struggling to finish in the allocated time. For example, the reading paper had three texts of substantial length to read and accompanying questions for which they have an hour. They had to read all three texts within this time and answer all the questions. Had they had more time most would have been able to finish.”

Despite reassurances from the DfE, schools were still concerned that the leaks might prejudice their results. “We were concerned about the SPAG test after the leak,” said Ms Davies. “But the test itself seemed to be fair, although we don’t feel it is conducive to enabling children to really develop their reading and writing skills as it is mainly a tick-box exercise.”

For Ms Alliston it was the spelling that they had most concern about rather than the grammar: “We felt okay with the grammar as we have changed the way we teach it since the draft English curriculum. Spelling has been a main focus this year due to the increased number of marks for the papers.”

Time for reflection

With the tests themselves safely over, now it is time for reflection and evaluation. Headteachers were still reluctant to express their final verdict given the uncertainty there is about where the thresholds will lie.

“It is very difficult to comment accurately,” said Ms Davies, “as we do not know yet what the measures are for children to meet national expectation.”

Overall, Ms Alliston is concerned that the tests are not child-friendly. “It’s not just about the content of the tests but the expectation of six-year-olds concentrating for 40 minutes in test conditions,” she said.

At Coldfall they have had concerns about the impact of the tests on children’s wellbeing: “I have asked quite a few children about how they are finding the tests and there are mixed feelings. Some are saying they’re ‘fine’ and others are saying they found them difficult.”

With schools worried about the mental health of children, Coldfall are doing their best to counteract any effects that exam pressure might have.

“We’ve put a lot of emphasis on a growth mindset and positive thinking and also remind them of all their other skills and talents,” explained Ms Davies.

It would seem that an increasing number of parents are also feeling disillusioned with the impact of assessment and accountability on their children. Seventy-seven pupils were absent from the tests at Coldfall Primary as parents decided to join “Boycott the SATs” day on May 3.

“This is a significant proportion of our pupil population and shows that there is very strong feeling among the parent body,” Ms Davies added.

Disappointment with the DfE

Some headteachers are running out of any patience they may have had with the DfE. “Overall it seems that the DfE does not thoroughly think-through, research or listen to professionals,” Ms Davies said. “Instead they rush into changes and new initiatives too quickly, leading to disillusionment and the errors which have resulted.”

For Ms Davies this all has far wider implications, not only now but for the future: “The DfE’s handling of assessment has been pretty shambolic overall – the constant changes and updates have created lots of confusion and made it difficult to keep up with new expectations.

“The whole assessment agenda has generated distrust between teaching professionals and the DfE, which is of course detrimental to children’s learning. It has also had a negative impact on teacher recruitment and retention and increased parental anxiety.”

With the overhaul of the assessment system some blips were inevitable. However, as the results are eagerly anticipated, headteachers and their schools will be hoping that the end justifies the hard work they have put into this year’s SATs.

Baseline – an expensive experiment

Of course before the SATs chaos came the upheaval of the axing of the Reception Baseline. Since the introduction of Baseline testing was announced in 2013, campaigners have argued against it. Its eventual withdrawal came as the DfE admitted that it could not work.

But at what cost?

Proposals were published in July 2013 to reform primary school assessment and accountability. The proposals included the introduction of a Baseline assessment in Reception. When the consultation response was published the following March, 51 per cent of respondents were against the introduction of the test.

Particularly conclusive appeared to be the response to the question: “Should we allow schools to choose from a range of commercially available assessments?” Seventy-three per cent of the 1,187 respondents said “no”. However, the DfE chose to ignore these views completely. Although the summary of the consultation responses was published, the DfE had already made up its mind that the Baseline would go ahead and that a range of commercially available assessments would be offered.

The evidence against it

Following Baseline’s trial introduction in 2015, the UCL Institute of Education report, They are Children, Not Robots, Not Machines, provided a teachers’ perspective to the assessment. The overall response was negative, with 59 per cent being in agreement that the Baseline had disrupted the start to school.

Schools were saying that they already had some form of assessment in place at the start of Reception and almost 60 per cent felt that it was not a fair and accurate way of assessing children. However, this report was commissioned by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and National Union of Teachers (NUT) and as such would receive short shrift from the DfE.

It wasn’t until the Reception Baseline Comparability Study was published that the DfE had to face the fact that this assessment could not be used as a further means of holding schools to account. This technical study from the DfE’s own Standards and Testing Agency could not be ignored.

The main issue that the researchers were asked to explore was whether the fact that schools had been allowed to use different commercial tests would be problematic for their reliability. The DfE had allowed schools to choose between three private providers and the results of the research were clear – there was not sufficient comparability between the three assessments to enable them to be used in the accountability system. The DfE was left with no alternative but to withdraw the tests.

Leaving schools where?

The majority of schools had invested in establishing the procedures for hosting the test. They had, as they are always encouraged to, made the most of it and done their best to fit it into the existing procedures they had with as little disruption and upset to the children as possible.

Now, the DfE suggests that schools can still sign up for the Baseline for the 2016/17 academic year if they wish. Although the assessment won’t be used for accountability purposes, the DfE considers that schools might still find it useful. However, the NUT among others is advising that there is no good reason why they should continue to be used.

The DfE has not yet given up on the idea of finding some way of measuring children’s progress between Reception and the end of key stage 2. There is still a missing link in terms of how schools are doing and the DfE is determined to find it. They are still considering options for “improving assessment arrangements in Reception” and an announcement will follow.

But is there a test that could deliver this? There are so many difficulties in expecting any system to reliably measure the progress that children make over such a long period of time and from such a young age.

Taking a decision not to pilot the tests

Headteacher Jacqui Booth of St James’ First School in Dorset had decided not to trial the tests in the first place. She explained: “The decision was based on a number of factors. We felt that our existing systems worked well (a view supported by Ofsted) and couldn’t see how change for change’s sake would benefit the children in any way.

“As it was optional for this academic year, we found it interesting that so many schools were keen to go ahead with an initiative in which we saw little or no value, and so decided we would wait until it was forced upon us.”

Ms Booth and her school also had concerns about the use of different providers and had pre-empted the Standards and Testing Agency report with the view that they could not be comparable. “We also felt that in a time when there is such turmoil surrounding assessment, to introduce yet more change was not conducive to staff, children or parent wellbeing.”

When Ms Booth spoke to schools who had trialled it she was no more reassured or confident in which provider to choose for September 2016: “We spoke to numerous colleagues about the various Baselines to try to make an informed decision for September 2016. No colleague was particularly satisfied with their provider.”

Feeling angry

The withdrawal of the assessment looks like the sensible step to take in the light of the comparability study results. What it does not do is sufficiently reflect the enormous effort that schools had put into its introduction and the cost incurred from the education budget.
This decision to implement Baseline was taken against the majority view of the sector and has cost schools in many different ways. They are rightly indignant about it.

Evelyn Davies at Coldfall Primary said: “We found it to be very onerous, time-consuming and complicated. We had to do it with all our 90 Reception children for very little gain, producing an array of unusable data which didn’t match up to the EYFS curriculum and cannot be used to measure progress.”

Ms Davies’ staff feel angry that they should have had to go through this process at all: “Baseline has been a huge waste of time and public money, and more importantly a waste of children’s learning time. The whole experience caused a lot of stress to staff who had to have specialist training, attend lots of meetings and so on, when really they should have been teaching the children. We have not used the data generated in any way, as it is not useful to our practice.”

Cost to the public

The “Better without Baseline” coalition had campaigned throughout to have the assessment removed and although delighted by the outcome they are not as reassured by the reasons for it. They argue that the DfE took the decision ‘‘through lack of data comparability, rather than the impact on child wellbeing” and are mindful that the DfE’s determination to “baseline” isn’t over yet.

It said: “We note that the DfE intends to begin a process of engagement with stakeholders around issues of early years assessment. We look forward to participating in these discussions, but will continue to treat with caution any statements that lack an appropriate recognition of the importance of developmentally informed practice and the holistic nature of early childhood development.”
Better without Baseline can also provide information about the cost of implementing this now abandoned initiative. The bill to date includes:

  • £49,756 for research.
  • £26,416 to evaluate and select providers.
  • £2,000,000 to £4,200,000 for Baseline assessments in school.

In addition they point out that schools paid from their own budget for additional training, staff cover and other incidental costs.

Next steps for schools

It seems that now the Baseline has been whisked away, the schools we talked to would revert to their previous systems. For Ms Booth at St James’ there has been little disruption given that they abstained from the trials.

“We will continue to baseline children’s attainment upon entry using our existing system until notified of the next change. We remain hopeful that advice from the professionals on the ground will be heeded next time.”

It hasn’t been a wasted venture for everyone. Hayley Alliston at English Bicknor Primary is considering continuing to use the Baseline they had chosen next year for their own purposes.

Not surprisingly, Ms Davies and her school are not intending to continue to use the Baseline assessment. “We feel we can assess our children on entry to school in a much more efficient and effective way, much more quickly, using tasks which match to our key skills Reception curriculum and enables teachers to plan for the next steps. Our main aim is to ensure that children settle in quickly and happily and teachers focus on developing those strong, positive relationships and get teaching as soon as possible rather than spending hours assessing.”

However, what is clear is that the DfE will not allow themselves to be beaten on this issue just yet. Let’s hope that next time they listen to and act upon what professionals have to say and don’t allow any more public money and teacher time to be wasted. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

Further information

  • Reforming Assessment and Accountability for Primary Schools: Government response to consultation on primary school assessment and accountability, DfE, March 2014: http://bit.ly/1XvGcT
  • They are Children, Not Robots, Not Machines: The introduction of Reception Baseline Assessment, Alice Bradbury and Guy Roberts-Holmes, UCL Institute of Education, 2015: http://bit.ly/2473LSC
  • Reception Baseline Comparability Study: Results of the 2015 study, DfE, April 2016: http://bit.ly/1WRYWxI


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