By Marian Sainsbury, assessment expert, former Primary teacher, and NFER research associate
Baseline assessment, to be introduced nationally in 2015-16, gives a score for children’s abilities in their first six weeks of school, so that later progress can be measured. Since the DfE announcement earlier this month, there have been six accredited providers of reception baseline assessments, each offering a distinctive approach. This means that schools have a real choice about the kind of assessment they adopt and there has already been considerable discussion about what constitutes a ‘principled’ baseline assessment.
The issue here is how to assess young children who have only just started school. Unlike older pupils, they cannot be presented with a test paper and show their understanding by answering written questions. Young children, by contrast, show what they know and can do by talking and activity. Their education is shaped by the curriculum for the Early Years Foundation Stage, which emphasises playing and exploring, active learning and creative thinking.
So what are the principles that must apply to a baseline assessment? At NFER, we have a 60-year history of assessment research, so in developing our own reception baseline assessment we applied research-based thinking. Fundamental to any assessment are the twin principles of validity and reliability. Validity is the capacity of an assessment to make the invisible visible – to provide a recorded demonstration of capabilities and understanding that really only exist in the test-taker’s head. The assessment must give an accurate indication of whether the test-taker has those capabilities and understanding or not. Reliability is the requirement for consistency – the same result should be obtained no matter what the circumstances of assessment. Alongside these fundamental principles is a third requirement, for practicality or manageability. Any assessment makes choices about the balance between these three requirements, and those choices can be summed up in the single phrase ‘fitness for purpose’.
The purpose of the reception baseline assessment, as the DfE made clear, is to support accountability by making it possible for primary schools to calculate the progress their pupils make, rather than just measuring attainments once children reach the end of the primary phase. In other words, this forms part of a system for judging schools. We took the view that any such assessment needs to be as consistent as possible across schools, so that these judgements are reliable and fair. For this reason, the NFER Reception Baseline Assessment consists mostly of specified tasks, such as counting or writing their name, for children to do in a standard way.
At the same time, our long experience of assessments for young children convinced us that the tasks should be active and practical, rather than on-paper or on-screen. In the counting task, for example, the teacher asks the child to count out 20 little teddy bears. Marks are awarded for counting up to five, or ten, or 20. The teacher can record the assessment directly onto a tablet or laptop, but what the child does is active and practical. The assessment is conducted face-to-face by an adult who works with the child from day to day, using familiar classroom resources. In addition, there are some cases where a judgement of an important achievement cannot be made under standard conditions and, for these, there is a teacher checklist. Showing enjoyment and interest while listening to stories, for example, cannot necessarily be elicited to order, so this is something we ask the teacher to assess from ongoing observation. All of these decisions aim to enhance the validity of the assessment.
There is a further principle embodied in the assessment, which emerged very strongly both from our review of underpinning research and from consultation with the early years practitioners and experts who helped us with development. The DfE requires only the areas of ‘communication and language, literacy and mathematics’ for accreditation of a reception baseline assessment scheme. Yet children’s success in the new school environment also depends on their attitudes and dispositions – the characteristics of effective learning such as confidence, curiosity and the ability to work with others. We have consequently chosen to include a free optional ‘Foundations of Learning’ checklist, with a separate score, so that Reception teachers can also record these important characteristics in a standard way. Once again, this contributes to validity.
So the matter of principle is not a simple one. In fact, there are a number of competing principles and all the products on offer reconcile these in different ways. In selecting their baseline assessment, schools will want to examine these in some depth, in the light of both the school’s early years philosophy and its assessment policy.