Verdicts on the Reception Baseline Assessment

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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We have been anticipating the introduction of the Reception Baseline Assessment for years. With full implementation finally coming last term, has it lived up to expectations? Suzanne O’Connell speaks to schools and reflects on the choppy past and uncertain future of the controversial test

The prospect of the Reception Baseline Assessment (RBA) has hovered over us for almost 10 years now.

In 2015 a baseline pilot was held with five possible models to choose from. Following this, three providers were allowed to continue offering their variations. But this initiative was famously abandoned when analysis revealed difficulties with compatibility between the different models.

This perhaps sums up the troubled path of RBA – lack of compatibility was a major issue for a test purely designed to compare! And yet headlines such as What next after the end of Baseline assessment? (Headteacher Update, 2016) did not spell the end of RBA.

Next, schools were asked to pilot a new assessment, this time with only one option, in September 2019. The planned date of implementation was 2020, which, of course, didn’t come to pass. And throughout all of this, of course, there has been staunch union and teacher opposition (Headteacher Update, 2020; Roberts-Holmes et al, 2020).

But from the outset, in spite of its troubled history, the Department for Education (DfE) has been resolute that the testing of Reception children would take place in order to provide a benchmark with which to judge schools’ effectiveness when their pupils leave in year 6.

Even a pandemic could not stop the introduction of RBA – indeed the initiative has perhaps received less scrutiny then it would have done due the dominance of headlines about remote learning, digital divides and food vouchers.

What does the RBA consist of?

The official name given is “age-appropriate assessment” rather than a “test”, and the focus is on mathematics and literacy. The RBA is administered in the first six weeks of school to pupils starting Reception. It is considered important that the person administering the test is familiar to the child and is, for example, the child’s teacher or teaching assistant.

The test is said to take 20 minutes to complete and consists of two parts. The first part assesses maths and pupils are asked to add and subtract numbers and explain patterns. The second part of the test includes tasks related to early vocabulary and comprehension and phonological awareness.

The member of staff doing the test records the results as part of an online scoring system with the pupil not having to write anything but pointing, responding orally and moving objects to indicate their understanding. If a pupil is failing in the tasks then the computer will adjust the route for the child so that they should not be left with a sense of failure.

The score is not made available to the school and will be used to create a cohort-level progress measure of schools at the end of key stage 2. The list of what it can’t be used for is longer – it is not intended to be used for formative assessment or to measure performance for those caring for the child prior to the test.

Teachers’ verdicts

We asked three schools for their comments on the implementation of the RBA: Ruth Baltzer is Reception/year 1 teacher at Pawlett Primary School in Somerset; Anna Sheldon is assistant headteacher with responsibility for overseeing assessment at Springwell School in Hounslow; and the third teacher is an EYFS lead who preferred to remain anonymous.

Were you able to carry out the test in 20 minutes?
All three schools agreed that 20 minutes was usually sufficient for the test to be administered. Our EYFS lead pointed out that a little more time was needed for the literacy (15 to 20 minutes) rather than the maths (15 minutes), although Ms Sheldon found that maths took more time on occasions.

Did you receive the necessary resources to carry out the test?
All three schools agreed that everything was provided for them and in good time. However, our EYFS lead did comment on frustrations experienced by staff who could only access the RBA online portal in school. This meant that they had to find time during the school day to do the necessary training and to understand how to navigate the portal.

Did you have to employ additional staff to administer the test?
This was not an issue for our schools. However, Ms Baltzer points out that she used her PPA time to do the testing as she teaches full-time in a mixed Reception/year 1 class.

How did children respond?
The schools were positive about the children’s responses. Staff were careful about the timing of the tests so that they were only administered when they felt the children were ready. Successful transition arrangements allowed the test to be carried out without causing distress.

How did staff feel about using the test?
The response here was mixed and a main issue seemed to be the allocation of time at a key point in the school year. Ms Baltzer said: “Time could have been better used implementing a Baseline that was relevant and that we could use.” Ms Sheldon echoed this: “It was very time-consuming and meant that a member of staff was absent from the classroom for a considerable amount of time at the beginning of the academic year.”

Our EYFS lead commented on the fact that the RBA script does not allow deviation to help a child understand a question: “In some circumstances the staff felt that it put the child under unnecessary pressure, particularly children with English as an additional language or children with SEN.”

At this school, the two tests were administered separately in order to avoid taking the child from their play and new friends for too long each time. There was a positive note, however: “Staff did enjoy the one-to-one time with each child and allowed time for each child to converse with the practitioner if they wanted to.”

How useful do you think the test is?
The answer to this is perhaps covered by the fact that two of our schools indicated that they were carrying out their usual baseline assessment in addition to the statutory requirement. Our EYFS lead told us: “The RBA reports generated do not provide teachers with the information needed to be used as a sole assessment tool. For us, the information gained from the test is not worth the impact of a member of staff being removed from the classroom for several days.”

Although Ms Sheldon acknowledged that the test provided a good level of entry data, Ms Baltzer felt let down by the lack of feedback: “It wasn’t very useful at all. It would have been more useful if we could have had a record of the questions and the children’s answers or a table of scores. Because the feedback we got was so vague, the data is of no use. Our own baseline gives us a lot more relevant information and therefore gives us a starting point for each child. However, this increases the time spent assessing and reduces the time that should be spent getting to know our new children, which is an extremely valuable way of baseline assessing them.”

Conclusions and commentary

It is clear that, by and large for these three schools, the test went according to plan and children did not seem adversely affected. The schools made it work with a minimum of disruption. However, it is also clear that they felt the time could have been better spent during that crucial period when a child is being integrated into a new environment.

Whatever the day-to-day practicalities of administering the test, we might wonder just how beneficial the results will be in six years’ time? Over that period, it is likely that senior leaders and staff will have changed making it very difficult to pinpoint where problems occurred or successes were achieved.

If the school is judged to be “failing” based on this measure, it will be too late for the cohort of students in question and probably for subsequent cohorts too. On top of this, six years is a long time in politics. It is highly likely that during this time political interests will change and it is very possible that the DfE will no longer be as focused on the use of this benchmark – resulting in lots of wasted time and effort for schools.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information & resources

  • Headteacher Update: What next after the end of Baseline assessment? April 2016:
  • Headteacher Update: Baseline goes ahead amid criticism from teachers, March 2020:
  • Roberts-Holmes, Fung Lee, Sousa & Jones: Research into the 2019 pilot of Reception Baseline Assessment, UCL Institute of Education, February 2020:
  • Standards & Testing Agency: Assessment framework: Reception Baseline Assessment, February 2020:

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