Consider two scenarios. In the first, a reception practitioner (teacher or teaching assistant) takes children aside one by one to listen to them ‘read’. For some children this means seeing if they understand that print conveys meaning, if they can point to the words on the page and understand that they relate to the pictures alongside, or if the book engages them. For other children, further ahead in their reading development, the practitioner considers which letters or words they can recognise or sound out, or their interest in and level of understanding of what they are reading.
In the second scenario, the practitioner again spends a small amount of one-to-one time with each child, this time encouraging the children to count using some small plastic teddy bears. The practitioner can see exactly how they tackle the task, noting which children can recite the number names but struggle with the concept of one-to-one correspondence, which children can count successfully to five but get muddled between six and ten, and which ones can count confidently up to ten or beyond. In both scenarios the practitioner may offer support or scaffolding to the child but will note what the child is able to do independently. The practitioner is assessing the child’s current level of development whilst ensuring a positive experience for the child.
The first scenario happens frequently in reception classes across the country and as far as I am aware causes no concern to parents, teachers or the wider educational community. In fact parents start to complain on online forums if it happens too infrequently. However, the second scenario (or what it represents) has been condemned by a section of the educational community with suggestions it could be harmful to children. Why is the second scenario so reviled by some? Well, perhaps it is because that scenario forms part of one of the reception baseline assessments (part of the NFER’s in fact) introduced by the Department for Education (DfE) to assess children on entry to school. Some commentators have argued against the whole idea of assessing children at this early point in their school career and some about the approach taken by the baseline assessments themselves.
Too young to be assessed formally?
The media have contributed to a misunderstanding of the nature of these assessments by illustrating their articles with photographs of much older children, often in the process of writing. This gives the impression (wrongly) that baseline assessments are written tests for four-year olds; this is not the case at all. Schools can currently choose from three baseline assessment schemes, none of which are written tests. One of the three providers has taken a wholly observational approach, assessing children in the course of normal classroom activities. Although this approach follows current assessment practice in Early Years, some practitioners may find it very difficult to carry out observational assessments comprehensively and consistently in the much shorter assessment window necessary for collecting baseline data. And although observational assessment may be perceived as informal, in reality many of the contexts in which the observations take place have to be set up formally in order to provide the required assessment opportunities.
The other two providers (of which NFER is one) provide a ‘formal’ assessment in the sense that the assessments (or at least part of the assessments) follow a standardised or prescribed approach. This means that practitioners assess all children one-to-one in the same way, using the same equipment (practical resources in the case of NFER) supplied by the provider. Standardising the tasks and the contexts in which such tasks take place ensures every child has exactly the same opportunity to show what they know and can do. This ensures consistency in delivery, within and across schools, and therefore more comparable outcomes. However, ‘formal’ or one-to-one assessment in the context of baseline does not imply that children won’t enjoy the experience. We found that children enjoyed the tasks, in some cases ‘begging to have a go with the teddies’. Suggesting that such assessments may be harmful for children underestimates the professionalism of the Early Years practitioners who deliver the assessments in a supportive and engaging manner.
How useful is a single numerical score?
One of the other arguments against baseline focuses on the production of a single numerical score, which will be used by the DfE to measure children’s progress when they reach the end of primary schooling. The argument is that such a score will be of little use to parents or teachers. However, this misses the point that in order to arrive at such a score the practitioner will have discovered a lot of very useful information about each individual child and will therefore be very clear about their developmental needs in the assessed areas.
Although the baseline assessments do not address all aspects of the Early Years curriculum, practitioners will make broader-based teacher assessments over the course of the reception year as they have always done. Prior to the introduction of baseline, many practitioners already carried out some form of on-entry assessment as a starting point for their ongoing tracking of children’s development. With the collection of this baseline data at the cohort level, measuring progress from school entry means that the contribution of Early Years practitioners is recognised when the DfE are assessing the value added by a school.
Time for learning
Other arguments against baseline assessments focus on the time taken away from teaching and learning to carry out one-to one assessments, implying that the assessments take place in a vacuum, devoid of any meaning or relationship to learning. But practitioners carry out assessments all day every day; they have to do so in order to assess children’s needs and plan future learning opportunities. Although all of the baseline assessments take time (either in planning and recording the observations or in administering the tasks), many practitioners have found investing the time at this very early stage is very worthwhile. One of the potential advantages of baseline assessment is to identify children who may need additional support at an earlier stage. Although practitioners are very adept at recognising children’s additional needs, if baseline assessments indicate the need for further screening or lead to interventions being put in place sooner than previously, then the investment of time is surely repaid.
Working one-to-one with children (reading or otherwise) can provide practitioners with valuable insights into the exact nature of each child’s learning needs. At NFER we see this as an important type of ‘observation’. Practitioners may observe a child demonstrating or verbalising their thought processes in a way that might not be possible in a group context, and as a result gain much useful information about what the child can and cannot do, the concepts the child understands and those they have not yet mastered. The structured approach of a standardised assessment with small steps leading from one task to the next can make it easier for practitioners to assimilate this information. Although it is important that the majority of the child’s day comprises self-initiated play-based activities, we do not feel that 10-15 minutes of practitioner-directed activity is harmful for the child or wasteful for the practitioner. Perhaps rather than worrying about the time taken to carry out these assessments, we should celebrate the fact that they allow practitioners to get to know the children, just as they do when they listen to them read.