Reception Baseline Assessment: What to expect

Written by: Katherine Fowler | Published:
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The pilot of the new Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) has begun and the national roll-out is due in September 2020. Katherine Fowler from the National Foundation for Educational Research – which has developed and will deliver the new assessment – explains how it will work in practice and discusses some of the evidence and research used to create it

Starting from the autumn term 2020, all Reception classes in England will be expected to undertake the Department for Education’s Reception Baseline Assessment (DfE, 2018).

In the lead up to the statutory roll-out of this new assessment, more than 9,000 schools up and down the country have signed up for the pilot year, which begins this term.

Practitioners will administer the assessment one-on-one with every Reception child during their first six weeks of starting school. The assessment covers elements of early mathematics, literacy, communication and language, and should take an average of 20 minutes per child to complete. The practitioner will record the responses of the child using an online system while the child interacts with physical and engaging resources.

Following the completion of the assessment, practitioners will be able to access a report on each child in the form of a series of narrative statements, describing how the child responded to the assessment. As well as these statements, practitioners will also gain valuable information about the children in their class from the time spent one-to-one with them.

This should provide practitioners with additional information about the different experiences of their Reception class during their first six weeks of school, helping to inform their teaching approach.

No numerical scores will be provided to the school. Data gathered from the RBA will be used only at the cohort level and will not be used to label individual pupils. When these same children reach the end of year 6 and complete the key stage 2 national curriculum tests, it will provide the baseline against which the progress of the cohort will be measured across the seven years of primary education.

The introduction of the RBA will ultimately replace the need for key stage 1 national curriculum tests and will allow the value added in the important first three years of school to be recognised.

A valid cohort measure

It is of vital importance that a statutory, national assessment such as the RBA is technically robust and appropriate for use by practitioners and for children starting Reception. Our approach to the design and development of this assessment is underpinned by our in-depth knowledge built over more than 70 years and our experience of developing other baseline schemes with young children and practitioners.

By the time the RBA becomes statutory, the assessment will have undergone a thorough development and review process lasting several years, including:

  • Development of assessment content by early years and assessment development experts, which has drawn on NFER’s previous baseline assessment (RBA15).
  • Cultural review of the assessment, as well as reviews by experts in early years education and SEN.
  • Regular advice from expert and practitioner panels.
  • A trial of the assessment content and online system with more than 3,000 pupils in September 2018.
  • A pilot of the assessment this academic year (2019/20) with more than 9,000 schools.
  • Observations of the assessment and user research of the system throughout the trialling and pilot periods.
  • Rigorous statistical analyses of the trialling and pilot data.

Alongside the assessment, all practitioners will receive an administration guidance booklet and a series of online training tools, including video clips demonstrating the implementation of a selection of assessment tasks. These training materials have been designed to ensure consistency of administration and scoring across practitioners and schools, which will enhance reliability and support the valid use of the assessment outcomes.

The assessment development process has been guided by pertinent research to ensure that the RBA is both manageable and is an appropriate measure for its intended purpose. As it is not practically possible to cover every skill a child may possess on starting school, the assessment focuses on the key skills of early literacy and mathematics.

Research has shown clear links between attainment in mathematics and in literacy and that both these skills are strong predictors of future school success. For example, Bowman et al (2000) have shown that there is a crucial link between early language development and children’s future educational success, while various studies have shown a similar pattern for mathematical skills (Aunio & Niemivirta, 2010; Jordan et al, 2009). There is also a body of evidence showing a strong relationship between early literacy and numeracy skills (for example, Welsh et al, 2010, Duncan et al, 2007).

Research has also been conducted into the reliability of RBA15, the original baseline assessment created by NFER in 2015 that has been drawn on in the creation of the new RBA. The reliability of RBA15 was calculated statistically using Cronbach’s alpha – a reliability coefficient that assesses how well the items within an assessment correlate with one another. This is considered to be a very useful indicator of reliability.

A coefficient score greater than 0.8 is widely considered to be good: the assessment will provide a consistent and accurate measure of the skills being assessed. For the various versions of RBA15 trialled in Reception, Cronbach’s alpha was found to be between 0.90 and 0.92. While the new RBA is not a direct copy of RBA15, the assessments are alike enough that we would expect them to have very similar statistical properties.

A measure of cohort progress

One of the concerns that is often voiced about the RBA is that it will take a further seven years (when the first cohort to do the RBA reaches year 6) before we know the full extent to which the skills and abilities it measures can explain the performance of children in their key stage 2 tests. It is only at this point that the DfE will be able to evaluate statistically the relationship between baseline scores and key stage 2 scores.

While this is true, the reliability and research evidence noted above suggests that the RBA will provide an accurate picture of the early literacy and numeracy skills of a school’s intake and that it is possible to use this data as a baseline for children’s progress in reading and mathematics.

It is important that there is a statistically meaningful relationship between the baseline data and key stage 2 outcomes, as this enables progress to be measured effectively, and allows for comparison of the progress of schools with similar starting points.

Although there are a large number of factors that influence the progress children make between ages four and 11, and their attainment at the end of the key stage, research evidence suggests that the early literacy and numeracy skills assessed by the RBA can be used as a reliable baseline for a progress measure of key stage 2 outcomes.

As an example, Jordan et al (2009) demonstrated that early numeracy skills were a significant predictor of mathematical achievement both one and three years later. Nguyen et al (2016) likewise found early mathematical skills, measured at age four, to be predictive of mathematics achievement at age 10 and 11. Similarly, Muter et al (2004) demonstrated that early phonological skills, letter and vocabulary knowledge on entry to Reception were predictive of word recognition and reading comprehension skills two years later.

In a forthcoming publication by NFER, we will demonstrate that measures of children’s abilities at the start of Reception (collected through the RBA15) show a positive and statistically significant relationship with key stage 1 national curriculum test scaled scores three years later. This is an encouraging sign for the use of the new RBA as the starting point for a progress measure at the end of year 6.

With sufficiently robust data and an appropriate methodology for measuring progress between school entry and the end of key stage 2, there will be two important advantages of the RBA for schools.

First, the need for key stage 1 tests will be removed. Second, the progress measure will enable the contribution made by schools towards children’s learning and development throughout the whole of their primary education to be recognised. 

  • Katherine Fowler is a research manager at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Further information

  • Guidance: Reception Baseline Assessment, DfE, April 2018: www.gov.uk/guidance/reception-baseline-assessment
  • Eager to Learn: Educating our preschoolers, Bowman, Donovan & Burns, The National Academies Press, 2000.
  • Predicting children’s mathematical performance in grade one by early numeracy, Aunio & Niemivirta, Learning and Individual Difference, October 2010: http://bit.ly/31Z7dVC
  • Early math matters: Kindergarten number competence and later mathematics outcomes, Jordan, Kaplan, Ramineni & Locuniak, Developmental Psychology, May 2009: http://bit.ly/30wtlGo
  • The development of cognitive skills and gains in academic school readiness for children from low-income families, Welsh et al, Journal of Educational Psychology, February 2010.
  • School readiness and later achievement, Duncan et al, Developmental Psychology, November 2007: http://bit.ly/31Wo1MJ
  • Which preschool mathematics competencies are most predictive of fifth grade achievement? Nguyen et al, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 2016: http://bit.ly/2L4iQUk
  • Phonemes, rimes, vocabulary, and grammatical skills as foundations of early reading development: Evidence from a longitudinal study, Muter, Hulme, Snowling & Stevenson, Developmental Psychology, 2004: http://bit.ly/30uzKlw


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