Choosing your Baseline Assessment

Written by: Katharine Bailey | Published:
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Schools are being urged to sign up for one of the new Reception Baseline Assessment schemes before September. Katharine Bailey offers a few criteria to consider when making your decision

The Department for Education (DfE) has recently announced the list of accredited Reception Baseline Assessment providers, and is encouraging schools to sign up for one of the schemes from September 2015 ahead of a formal introduction in September 2016.

The assessment will be used to measure progress between Reception and year 6. It is right that we are held accountable for the progress that pupils make while in our care and this policy is a step in the right direction.

When progress is used alongside a range of other indicators, it has the potential to be a fairer way to evaluate school performance.

Having lived and breathed assessment in primary schools for many years, my view is that educators should focus on having excellent assessment throughout their school, regardless of accountability.

Among others, Dame Alison Peacock and her superb team at Wroxham School and the Wroxham Transformative Learning Alliance have advocated this approach for several years and have a series of successes to show for it (see www.wroxhamtla.org.uk).

Although the reception baseline policy marks a shift away from observation as the key method for gathering evidence of what children know and can do, good observation techniques have a tremendously important role to play in assessment.

Used side-by-side with an objective baseline assessment, this combination of data can be very insightful. The objective assessments we use must be of the highest quality. They must be used sensitively and the data must be interpreted appropriately. There are a few clear criteria to consider when identifying a "good" objective assessment.

Some criteria to consider

For the purposes of the new primary accountability policy, you should seek a good baseline from which to measure progress across a fairly long time period. This information can only be gathered reliably by an assessment that has certain qualities – so what questions should you ask when evaluating potential assessments?

Will the assessment feedback be representative?
The assessment needs to be delivered to enough pupils in enough schools to be representative of the group you are comparing against. In the case of the current policy, the assessment should give you information that is representative of reception classes across England. Check the numbers of children in England in state schools who have been included in the assessment provider's standardisation sample.

Is the assessment standardised and a fair assessment experience for all children?
In order to be representative, a good assessment should be delivered to a large number of pupils in a large number of schools – and it needs to be delivered to all those pupils in the same way. This should minimise any variation between pupils related to something other than their knowledge or skills. Schemes which rely too heavily on the teacher asking their own questions or noting their observations may not meet this need. If you can back professional judgement and observation with an independent fair assessment which is delivered in the same way to all children then this will add another dimension and level of rigour to your assessment practice.

Is the assessment reliable?
The assessment must gather information in a reliable way, that is, you would get very similar results if you repeated the exercise two days or a week later, or indeed the same results if a different teacher carried out the assessment. You can ask providers for their "test/retest" statistics. (These are usually provided as a correlation score on a scale of 0 to 1 and you would be looking for a figure of around 0.7 or above.)

Will the assessment indicate later progress?
The assessment must be focused on the required outcomes. If that is reading and maths, the assessment needs to be a good baseline measure of later reading and maths outcomes. For example, a baseline assessment might feature exercises in pattern matching, as this is shown to be an early indicator of reading. You can ask providers about the "predictive validity" of their assessment. (Again, this is measured using a correlation and you would expect to see a figure of at least 0.6 between the baseline measure and a related later assessment – such as key stage 2 reading or maths.)

What is a good assessment for your school?

Schools are being encouraged by the DfE to choose the baseline assessment that "best fits your school's needs and approach to assessment", but what should you consider in order to make this decision?

Knowing what you're looking for
Be sure of what the scheme is assessing. If you want to use it formatively, the information you get from the assessment needs to be fine-grained enough to allow you to get a detailed picture of what each child knows and can do. More specific information can help with targeting and planning for future learning.

Getting the right balance
To get the most out of it, an assessment will require a time investment. However, you need to balance the content of the assessment with the time it requires, as it should be manageable for your school. Computer-based assessments can be quick and very informative; observation-based methods take longer but can offer richer data.

Combining assessments for the best results
You should choose an assessment system that complements the data your school already has. To use assessment data successfully, you should combine it with information from a range of other sources such as teacher observation, details of home/background, previous educational experience, and attitudes to school and learning.

Assess and assess, again and again
Ideally, look for a scheme which allows for repeated assessment as the children move through school. This allows you to celebrate the progress each child makes, identify trends over time, evaluate the effectiveness of your classroom practices and monitor progress.

Conclusion

While opinion on the policy remains divided in some areas, the fundamentals are clear: research shows that a well-constructed assessment of what children know and can do when they first enter school can give teachers a very clear idea of the developing cognitive profiles of young children.

However, it is highly unlikely that any one method will give us the truth about a child's developmental stage, but combining methods is likely to get us somewhere close. Excellent teacher observation techniques used in conjunction with a high-quality baseline assessment that is representative, standardised, fair and reliable can have a tremendously powerful impact on both teaching and learning.

Good assessment professionals have always taken advantage of a range of assessment methods, adapting resourcing, planning and teaching to match their pupils' needs. Many headteachers are already taking the opportunity to facilitate and encourage discussion around different assessment techniques and application of findings. It is important that this practice continues, to ensure that schools get the most out of their baseline assessments this year, and indeed out of assessment more generally in the future.

  • Katharine Bailey is the director of applied research at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), a not-for-profit research organisation which is part of Durham University.


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