Baseline Assessment: Where it will end?

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

Despite past failures, the DfE is still convinced that the best measure for pupil progress must begin in Reception. But with a long implementation timeframe, fierce opposition and unions threatening to boycott, the story is not finished...

The government remains determined to introduce a Reception Baseline Assessment. School standards minster Nick Gibb announced in April that the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has been given the task of designing and delivering the new assessment.

The Department for Education (DfE) claims that “pupils will not have to prepare for (the test), either at home or in school”. They say it will be a fairer measure as it begins from when children first enter school rather than waiting until the end of key stage 1; teachers in year 2 will be relieved to see the back of SATs, but Reception staff may not feel so optimistic.

The test will be in addition to the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP), which is also due to be reviewed. The prospect of two assessments in the Reception year has led to concerns about the burden on staff.

The DfE says it will look into the workload implications and that there will be amendments to the EYFSP, including possibly reducing the number of early learning goals (ELGs) and making the descriptors clearer.

Ministers have promised to revise guidance including that of the EYFSP handbook and exemplification materials.

The current plan is for the new Baseline Assessment to be rolled out to all schools by the end of 2020 – it will be trialled in a selection of schools in 2018/19 and there will be a large-scale national pilot in 2019/20.

However, it will not be until September 2023 that key stage 1 assessment will become non-statutory and the first progress scores will not be published until 2027.

In its recent update document, Measuring progress in primary schools, the DfE states: “In its response to the consultation (Primary Assessment in England, September 2017), the government announced that it would introduce a new statutory assessment in autumn 2020. This will be administered by schools soon after children enter Reception, and will be used as the baseline for measuring the progress primary schools make.

“This will enable the department, for the first time, to create ‘end-to-end’ school-level progress measures for primary schools, showing the progress made from Reception until the end of key stage 2.

“These measures will be first published for all-through primaries in the summer of 2027 when those children who entered Reception in autumn 2020, will have reached the end of key stage 2.”

Previous attempts

This is not the first time that the DfE has committed to a Baseline Assessment in Reception. The government is very much wedded to the idea that there can be a reliable test on entry that can hold a school to account.

In 2015 this led to the introduction of a Baseline pilot with five possible models to choose from. Finally, only three providers were able to continue to offer a model: the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University, Early Excellence, and the NFER.

It was only when the results of the DfE’s Reception Baseline comparability study were published that ministers were forced to face up to the fact that allowing schools to choose their preferred model of Baseline assessment was not working and could no longer be used as a method of holding schools to account. Put simply, the outcomes of the three tests were not able to be effectively compared.

However, while the government was forced to abandon its initial approach, ministers’ determination about measuring children on entry to school remained.

The test

Now the DfE has announced that the NFER has been chosen as the single provider of a new model of Baseline Assessment. It will be a 20-minute teacher-recorded assessment of language, communication, literacy and early maths skills. The DfE has made it clear that it is not intended to be used to “judge, label or track” individual pupils as such.

Neither is it likely to be based on observations. During the previous attempt to introduce Baseline Assessment, educators showed their preference for an observation-based model with the popularity of Early Excellence’s approach.

Such an approach, however, does not lend itself to ease of administration and it is likely that the new test will tend towards the tick-box model rather than one that relies on observation. The test has been billed by Mr Gibb as quick and simple and activity-based. A tough challenge if it is also to be valid, reliable and used to hold schools to account.

Infant, first, middle and junior schools

This is a particularly tricky area for the DfE – without a key stage 1 assessment, first and infant schools may not be held to account like all-through primaries, while middle and junior schools risk being held to account for periods when pupils were not on their rolls.

The Primary Assessment in England consultation put forward two options. The first would have seen statutory key stage 1 assessments being maintained for infant and first schools. The second would have seen middle and junior schools being held accountable for pupils’ progress when they were at infant or first school – thus encouraging greater collaboration, the consultation suggested.

In the end, the DfE says neither of these options is acceptable. For first and infant schools, its update document states: “We can confirm that we will make key stage 1 assessments non-statutory for first and infant schools at the same time they are made non-statutory for all-through primaries. However, all schools with a Reception year will have a statutory responsibility to administer the new Reception Baseline Assessment when it is introduced.

“In terms of the measures published, there will not be any change from the status quo for first and infant schools which do not have progress measures published now. They will continue to be responsible for demonstrating the progress their pupils have made to Ofsted.”

For middle and junior schools, it adds: “After key stage 1 assessments have become non-statutory, middle and junior schools will be in a similar position to infant and first schools, in which they will have responsibility for evidencing progress based on their own assessment information.

“We will work with sector representatives and Ofsted before providing further guidance about the types of information that schools could make available to inspectors ahead of current progress measures being removed. Until the measures based on the new Reception Baseline are available for all-through primary schools, we will continue to publish progress measures for middle and junior schools.”

Opposition remains

There was widespread opposition among many early years educators and parents when the first Baseline was planned in 2015. This opposition remains. Those who oppose the introduction of the Baseline do so because they are concerned that some parents will feel the need to prepare their children, that it will take time away from the important settling in period, and that it is impossible to provide a reliable and valid comparative measure between this age group and year 6.

The National Education Union (NEU) has already argued that the DfE’s reference to the Performance Indicators in Primary Schools (PIPS) research from CEM (at Durham University) as justification for Baseline Assessment is wrong.

This research, the DfE claims in its Primary Assessment in England consultation, proves that it is possible to create a valid assessment of Reception-age children, a view that the NEU believes is not substantiated.

The NEU considers that the correlation between test scores at Reception level and those at key stage 2 is too weak to enable conclusions to be drawn. At the annual conference of the NUT section of the NEU at the beginning of April, teachers voted against cooperating with the trials of the new tests and as such the union will instruct its members in schools not to take part in any voluntary pilots.

Speaking to the Guardian at the time, Alex Kenny, an NEU executive member, said: “We want to pile pressure on heads and governors to say that they won’t volunteer to take part in Baseline in 2019.

“But if that pressure doesn’t work, we will combine it with indicative ballots so that we can identify the schools and areas where we can use industrial action if heads say they will go ahead with the pilot.”

Nothing is certain?

What is clear is that the timeframe for the implementation of Baseline Assessment is a long one, meaning that there is plenty of time for things to change.

With opposition still vociferous – not least via the union-backed More than a Score campaign – with unions threatening to boycott the tests, and with plenty of time for political change to affect the Baseline timeframe, who can predict exactly how this will end?

Further information

  • New measure for fairer recording of primary school performance, the Department for Education’s latest announcement on Baseline Assessment (April 2018):
  • Measuring progress in primary schools, additional information from the Department for Education on the Baseline Assessment implementation:
  • More than a Score:

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