Baseline Assessment: Have you made your decision yet?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Photo: iStock

Baseline Assessment can begin from September. Six accredited providers have been named and schools encouraged to make their decisions. But, as Suzanne O’Connell found out, there is still much opposition

The possibility of Baseline Assessment was consulted on in July 2013. In spite of the majority of respondents being against it, the Department for Education (DfE) has never shown any inclination to back down from its introduction. Now, schools are being encouraged to try it out in September.

This controversial piece of government policy is not, in fact, compulsory. However, if you do not opt to use a Baseline Assessment then schools have been told that from 2023 onwards there will be no measure of progress. Pupils' attainment will be the only accountability measure used at the end of key stage 2.

The DfE's Standards and Testing Agency has released details of the approved providers and schools have opportunity to select one from the six on offer that they feel best suits their needs. The assessments vary greatly, with different packages and approaches ranging from observation to computer-based assessment.

The assessment comes with a cost. In this first year the government is part-funding the materials with a subsidy of £3.50 per pupil. This is the honeymoon period. In future years it will be up to schools to pay themselves. The DfE has suggested that this money will be allocated within schools' budgets.

Those against

The tide of opposition has steadily increased over the months. Early years providers have been rallying to argue that these tests will undermine the best early years practice, as pre-school providers and parents will be tempted to teach to the test.

Those pre-school providers and parents who wish to delay formal education may be deterred as their children perform worse in the assessment. For the school this will be beneficial, however, as with all tests of this nature, the lower the overall baseline, the more opportunity to show progress.

Other arguments against it include the time it will take away from early years staff helping to settle in their new arrivals. The first days of entry to school are crucial ones for young children and their families. The assessments will be time-consuming, requiring anything from 15 to 30 minutes per-child of undisturbed assessment time. Precious time that most early years staff would rather spend focusing on getting the reception year off to a good start.

The chief purpose of the tests is as an accountability tool. However, the opposition argues that these assessments might end up being used to group children and some providers are already offering end-of-year versions to enable settings to show the progress children have made incrementally.

It seems logical that having spent so much time on the assessment that it would be beneficial if they could be used to provide formative information too. However, there are fears that this could lead to labelling at a very young age. It is argued that testing children at this early stage could be particularly detrimental to those who have English as an additional language, are summer-born, or who have had no formal pre-school experience.

The reliability of the tests is under question. Schools are being asked to select from six tests that are all quite different in their approaches. Although it has been promised that this will be accounted for in 2023, it is unclear how reassured schools should feel. By 2023 it will be too late to change the choice of test for a whole generation of children.

The validity of the tests is also in question. Dissenters argue that an assessment at age four cannot possibly measure the same skills and knowledge that a test at 11 can. This is not a test set against criterion, but a predictor of how children might perform in comparison with their peers.

These are some powerful arguments and they have been taken up by some influential voices. Professor Cathy Nutbrown reported on early education and childcare qualifications for the government. She has urged that the tests should be scrapped and describes them as a waste of time. An online petition launched has collected 5,000 signatures and early years professional groups have called for a boycott of the tests.

What are you choosing?

Overall, there has been very little professional support for the Baseline. The main argument for the use of the tests, put forward by politicians, is to provide a more solid progress measure that can be used. The DfE suggests that the use of Baseline Assessment will enable schools with challenging intakes to show progress more clearly.

Schools themselves seem unconvinced. Some are preferring to wait before making a choice and are deferring their decision until next year. One of these is St James' First School in Dorset, as headteacher Jacqui Booth, explained: "We aren't rushing into anything. I think the DfE, governors and headteachers need to be careful about the motivation behind the choices different schools make. For a number of reasons, we have chosen not to 'trial' the providers this year."

Gareth Davies, headteacher of Holy Apostles CE School in Cheltenham, is at a loss as to what might be the best decision: "The whole question of Baseline Assessments has rumbled on for many years and only distinguishes itself by its inadequacy. We have not yet decided finally on one of the accredited providers and, in fact, may well end up trying out and comparing two of them."

The choice that schools are making is also influenced by the decisions of others within their clusters, trusts or foundations.

Ms Booth is concerned: "A number of the assessments seem quite difficult for young children to access which may result in lower baseline results that are not genuine representations of underlying abilities. In the longer term, this could result in inflated value-added indicators giving a biased view of the quality of provision at a school."

Whatever the rhetoric, it is schools that will have to manage the implementation. Mr Davies added: "We have to ensure that reception staff have a sensible, realistic and sufficiently resourced workload."

Looking forward to 2023

A unique feature of this assessment is that there will be such a long time until we can really see how well it has worked. We know that time goes quickly in education, but projecting forward to the impact these tests might have in 2023 is difficult even for the most forward-thinking school. The two General Elections between now and the use of these assessments in performance tables should not undermine the campaigns against them. If they are maintained as the progress measure of the future, then the choices made now could have a huge consequence for schools – and a generation of children.

Reception Baseline Assessment: The accredited providers

CEM (Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring)

  • Type of assessment: BASE has been created by Durham University and uses an animated programme including 'Milly the Bug'. It requires the use of a computer, laptop or tablet and emphasises that it is fun for children to complete. It advertises that it is accessible whatever the level of the child as the assessment moves on when children start to get the answers wrong.
  • Time/cost: 15 to 20 minutes per-child; ranging from £3.50 per-child to £8.50 (exc VAT).
  • Website: www.cem.org

Early Excellence

  • Type of assessment: EExBA is based upon practitioner observation rather than additional tasks or test materials. Practitioners make their judgement based upon observing, interacting and talking to parents. Judgements are made against statements for each child and the website advertises that it works within the principles and practices of the EYFS.
  • Time/cost: Based on observation, nine to 12 minutes to record per-child; £85 registration fee, £3.10 per child (exc VAT).
  • Website: www.earlyexcellence.com/reception_baseline_overview.html

GL Assessment

  • Type of assessment: Baseline uses one-to-one assessment delivered on two tablets – one for the teacher and one for the child. It contains oral and touch-screen questions and the website advertises that the assessment can be carried out with different members of staff.
  • Time/cost: Less than 25 minutes per-child; £3.95 per-child (exc VAT)
  • Website: www.gl-assessment.co.uk/products/baseline-reception-baseline-assessment

Hodder Education

  • Type of assessment: Hodder Reception Baseline Assessment is a paper-based assessment package. It comes with a manual, teacher script and pupil record booklets. It allows teachers to record observations about children's personal, social and emotional development.
  • Time/cost: 10 to 15 minutes per-child; Teacher Script and Pupil Record Booklet £15
  • Website: www.hoddereducation.co.uk/baseline

NFER

  • Type of assessment: NFER Reception Baseline Assessment includes a mixture of tasks and observation checklists. There are two task-based activities that the website advertises as being 'fun and hands-on' and 'play-based activities'. The booklet sends you to the next appropriate task for a child's level of development when a child is not able to complete.
  • Time/cost: 15 minutes per-child; £225 for the school pack
  • Website: www.nfer.ac.uk/schools/baseline-assessment/

Speech link

  • Type of assessment: Reception Baseline is an online package that focuses on language and includes a short assessment, some additional classroom checklists and provides immediate reports. The assessment was developed by speech and language therapists.
  • Time/cost: Three blocks of 10 minutes each per-child; £4.95 per-child (exc VAT)
  • Website: www.receptionbaseline.co.uk
  • Provider information listed above is based upon information on the providers' websites.
  • Suzanne O'Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information
Reception Baseline Assessment: A guide to signing up your school: (DfE, February 2015):
www.gov.uk/reception-baseline-assessment-guide-to-signing-up-your-school


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