Baseline pilots loom as DfE sticks to its guns

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Can any test taken by four-year-olds provide an accurate baseline to a completely different test seven years later? Since 2013 – despite embarrassing set backs – the DfE has doggedly pushed for Baseline Assessment. With the latest trials complete, a new framework is out and pilots are on the horizon

The Standards and Testing Agency (STA) has now released the framework for the Reception Baseline Assessment. It comes with supporting documents and a video and schools are being asked if they would like to volunteer for pilots that will run from September to June next year. This is ahead of full implementation in autumn 2020.

However, the opposition surrounding the tests remains strong. Most recently, the parent campaign group More than a Score marched on Downing Street to hand in a 68,000-name petition opposing the tests.

And in his speech to the National Education Union (NEU) annual conference last month, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he would scrap baseline (as well as SATs).

The NEU itself, meanwhile, told Headteacher Update that it is encouraging members to oppose the pilots. Assistant general secretary Nansi Ellis said: “We have been encouraging members to hold meetings with their heads to explain the problems with baseline and to encourage them not to opt-in for a pilot of a test of four-year-old children which provides data to judge schools rather than useful information for teachers.”

The Department for Education (DfE) is not oblivious to the criticism surrounding high-stakes testing and its impact on primary-age pupils. However, in a Telegraph article last month, Damian Hinds defended the importance of testing at such a young age. Comparing the tests to the checks made by dentists and opticians, he reaffirmed their importance and stated that “stopping testing means not checking whether something is okay or not”.

The baseline has other supporters too. The Assessment Review Group recommended in 2016 that there should be an assessment point at the start of primary and the National Association of Head Teachers has continued to back the concept, albeit with provisos around pupil mobility and adjustments for pupil age.

A second attempt

The trials, pilots and new framework are the DfE’s second attempt to make a Reception Baseline Assessment work. In 2015 a pilot was held with five possible baseline models to choose from.

Subsequently, three providers were able to continue to offer the test. However, this was eventually dropped after a comparability study found huge difficulties in comparing the outcomes of the three very different tests.

However, it was clear that the DfE was still wedded to the principle itself, even if the practice of offering alternative models was proving problematic. The DfE’s primary assessment consultation, launched in March 2017 after the first baseline attempt failed, stated: “We recognise that any new baseline would need careful consideration, but our view is that the case for a baseline in Reception is strong.”

To avoid the problems encountered in 2015, the DfE has contracted only one assessment provider this time around. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has been asked to develop and deliver the assessment. The arrangements for the 2019/20 pilot are set out in the document Assessment Framework: Reception Baseline Assessment, which was published in February by the STA.

The new framework

The test must be completed as part of a one-to-one exercise and can be carried out by the Reception teacher, teaching assistant or suitably qualified practitioner.

It is to take around 20 minutes and there is an online scoring system, with the instructions for the practical tasks and the recording all done online. There are measures in place to prevent pupils from being given too many activities that they cannot do.

The baseline is linked to the learning and development requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) but not all areas of the EYFS will be assessed. The framework points out that there are several differences between baseline and the EYFS Profile and that it does not replace it.

The maths tasks include early number, early calculation, mathematical language, and early understanding of shape. The literacy, communication and language component includes early vocabulary, phonological awareness, early reading, and early comprehension.

Pupils will be expected to respond through a mixture of oral response, pointing, ordering or moving objects and the assessment can be stopped at any point. The DfE suggests that the test is accessible for almost all pupils, including those with SEND or those with English as an additional language.

Schools will be provided with a series of narrative statements that describe how each pupil performed. A single raw score out of 45 will be recorded for each pupil that will be kept to create the cohort level progress measure at the end of key stage 2.

The trials

The new framework is an amended version of the trial framework which saw more than 300 schools and 3,000 pupils take part. The schools had been selected as a nationally representative sample, although participation was voluntary. There is strong criticism of the fact that the results of the baseline trial have not been published and that the DfE has no intention of doing so.

The only change that we are aware of following the trials is that the assessment of self-regulation has been removed. It is claimed that this part of the test took teachers longer to administer and that teachers were unsure of the purpose. However, there are others who claim that assessing the ability to persist with a task is one of the more important skills and that it should be included.

In March, the Association for Professional Development in Early Years – known as the TACTYE – released a paper accusing the government of deciding to “count what is easily counted, but not what actually counts”.

Opposition continues

The TACTYE is only one of many early years associations that are strongly opposed to both the principles and the practice of Baseline Assessment. The Early Years Alliance, Early Education, Pre-school Learning Alliance and Cambridge Primary Review Trust have all offered their support to joint campaigns of opposition such as Better without Baseline and More than a Score.

After the publication of the new framework in February, More than a Score pointed out that, from next year, primary school pupils will be tested in Reception, year 1, year 2, year 4 and year 6.

In its paper, the TACTYE presents a number of arguments against the framework’s design, including its routing mechanism. This has been included to prevent children encountering too many questions that they might struggle to complete. TACTYE argues that it represents a linear type of learning which may prevent children from showing what they can do.

It points out that the tests are reliant on a high proportion of abstract tasks rather than concrete experiences and that the assessment depends largely on the experiences that children have had prior to entering education. Some children might have been encouraged to recognise number and letters whereas others might not have been.

They suggest that there is inconsistency in the destination and purpose of any recorded results. The framework announces that results will not be shared with schools, but teachers will have a “narrative summary” of each child. Information will not be available to parents but stored to measure progress when their child reaches 11-years-old.

A flawed concept?

However child-friendly, accurate and unobtrusive the testing might be, professionals are questioning whether it can possibly deliver on its main purpose: the creation of reliable school-level progress measures from Reception to the end of key stage 2. Can any test administered to four-year-olds provide an accurate baseline to a completely different test seven years later?

For now, we must wait for the outcome of the pilots. These at least should lead to the publication of evaluations and conclusions – a minimum requirement if schools are to have any confidence at all in this new assessment.

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