The principles of effective assessment

Written by: The NFER | Published:

The NFER has worked with hundreds of schools and thousands of pupils to develop its Reception Baseline Assessment. Catherine Kirkup and Marian Sainsbury look at some of the principles of effective assessment that have emerged

Starting in a reception class is an important step in a child's educational career. It is the beginning of school education which will continue throughout the primary and secondary phases. Wherever children have been in their pre-school years, a positive start in reception is a crucial springboard for later learning.

Correspondingly, the reception teacher needs to get to know each young learner quickly upon arrival in school, to plan the right learning experiences and address any difficulties. It is this natural process of finding out about each child's personality, likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses that, when formalised, becomes a reception baseline assessment.

Our new NFER Reception Baseline Assessment provides a scheme which reflects and structures the very same characteristics that the classroom practitioner will be observing in new pupils in the first half term of school. By pinpointing accurately and reliably children's achievements on school entry, a baseline score also offers a starting point for measuring progress over the school years.

It is this accountability purpose that has driven the current Department for Education policy, but a well-designed baseline assessment can meet the needs of early years practitioners and of school leaders too. Parents and carers are also closely involved in their children's learning, and need updates on progress at this important time.

Involving practitioners in development

Developing the baseline assessment was a research process involving tried and tested procedures and analyses. At the heart was our systematic collection of information and responses from a large number of reception teachers and other early years practitioners. Starting from a review of the research background, we drafted a range of assessment approaches – far more than we would eventually need.

The aim was to be in line with current thinking on pedagogy and with expert opinion on how to assess children of this age. These draft approaches were then reviewed and trialled over a series of development stages, so that we could select and refine our ideas and finally devise an assessment that best meets the needs of those who will use it.

More than 500 schools and 3,000 children helped to shape our assessment over the summer and autumn of 2014. Alongside their busy classroom schedule, they tried out the activities and observations and offered systematic feedback on their experiences. At the same time, researchers visited reception classes to talk to the practitioners and the children and to observe how the assessments work in the real world.

In this way, we have built a baseline assessment that embodies many of the principles and practices that reception practitioners have told us they find natural and useful.

Engaging children in meaningful activities

One central principle behind the assessment is the importance of engaging children's interest in a meaningful task, rather than setting up a random series of "hoops to jump through".
Underpinning our view of what an appropriate baseline assessment should look like is the recognition that social and cultural interactions play an important role in the learning process (Vygotsky, 1978). In other words it is taken as a given that assessment is an educational experience that will have an impact on the child and must therefore be appropriate and meaningful.

For example, 92 per cent of reception teachers thought it was "very important" for children to have concrete objects to manipulate in the numeracy tasks.

Reception children are naturally curious and already have an impressive range of skills and interests on starting school. The assessment activities should tap into this interest, curiosity and enthusiasm.

Although the assessment tasks are pre-planned and teacher-led, the aim is to provide a "playful orientation" (Wood, 2007) by means of authentic interactions and attractive materials. Tasks are set in everyday contexts that are familiar to most children and give them plenty to talk about. Many of the assessment activities reflect everyday classroom practices. The resources we provide are appealing to children and enjoyable for them to use.

The structure of the assessment

The assessment consists of a combination of assessment tasks and observations. It covers the three core domains (Language and Communication; Literacy and Numeracy) plus an optional module (Foundations for Learning) that, together with the core modules, provides a holistic picture of each child. Language and communication is widely recognised as a fundamental building block for children's overall cognitive development.

Children's talking and listening is spontaneous, and the assessment recognises this by asking practitioners to record an overall judgement based on observations of their pupils' abilities, for example, listening with attention, recounting events that have happened to them, or following instructions. Children's enjoyment of stories and books underpins both language and literacy and is also assessed by means of observations over time.

The foundations of literacy are found in children's knowledge of language, their growing abilities to pick out sounds in words and link these with letters, and their early mark-making and writing. These specific achievements lend themselves to simple assessment activities covering, for example, vocabulary, sequencing, letter recognition and writing the child's own name.

We provide a set of appealing resources and straightforward instructions so that a teacher or teaching assistant can take a child through these activities in a few minutes.

Similarly, early numeracy achievements such as counting, number recognition, addition, subtraction and recognising shapes are assessed through a straightforward series of one-to-one activities. Children manipulate actual objects and the tasks are set in a natural and meaningful context. The "counting bears" have proved to be a firm favourite with children during the development research.

The characteristics of effective learning that a child exhibits and key aspects of personal, social and emotional development that help a child to settle in at school can only be assessed by observation over time. The optional Foundations of Learning checklist has been carefully designed with the help of views from many practitioners about the most informative and manageable observations that can be made over the first few weeks in reception.

Children starting school have a wide range of abilities, likes and dislikes and it is crucial that the assessment should be sensitive to each individual child, including those with SEN. The assessment tasks are in the hands of the practitioner who knows the child best, and each one has natural discontinuation points so that a child is not presented with demands he/she finds too daunting. Practitioners can give help and support to a child who is struggling, as long as they reflect this in the assessment judgements they make.

Scores and data

For the practitioner, our main aim in developing the NFER Reception Baseline Assessment has been to offer a systematic way of making and recording key judgements about each child's development and attainment. Each judgement is framed as a simple yes/no choice, rather than requiring interpretation of complex performance descriptions.

Practitioners can choose to record their judgements directly on screen or on paper, transferring the data later. For each individual child, the system provides a summary score, together with a number of analyses of performance. These analyses offer some suggestions to set alongside the practitioner's growing knowledge of each child in planning learning activities.

The summary scores can also be used to provide a management overview of each intake and, over time, the baseline for tracking progress throughout infant schools and all-through primary schools. This fits with current policies on school accountability, which seek to pinpoint the contribution a school has made to children's progress, rather than reflecting the characteristics of the intake.

This high technical quality, in combination with an assessment approach which is sympathetic to the real world of the reception class, has been our goal throughout the development of the NFER Reception Baseline Assessment.

  • Catherine Kirkup is a research director at NFER's Centre for Assessment. Marian Sainsbury is an NFER research associate.

Further information

To find out more about the NFER Reception Baseline Assessment or to pre-order for September 2015, visit

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up Headteacher update Bulletin
About Us

Headteacher Update is a magazine, website, podcast and regular ebulletin dedicated to the primary school leadership team. We tackle a wide range of leadership issues, offering best practice, case studies and in-depth information, advice and guidance. Headteacher Update magazine is distributed free to approximately 20,000 primary school headteachers.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.