Baseline blues

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The new Reception baseline test will soon become a key measure in the government's accountability regime – but can such a test be a reliable indicator of progress? Sue Hackman isn't so sure.


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Will you be using a Reception baseline test this Autumn? Although 2015 is a dry run, the government is keen to encourage schools to take the plunge. For just one year, schools can count either their baseline or their Key Stage 1 (KS1) results as the starting point for the progress measure that will eventually apply to this cohort. In 2016, however, the baseline starts in earnest. KS2-only schools will continue to use KS1 results as their baseline, and KS1-only schools will use baseline-to-KS1 as their measure.

Don’t hold your breath though: the first cohort will not sit their KS2 tests until May 2023.

Ignore at your peril

From 2016, the test will become the starting point for measuring progress in most primary schools and will be a key measure in the accountability regime. Bizarrely, the test is not compulsory, but ignore it at your peril, because the alternative is to be measured on attainment alone. The newly raised standard at KS2 (85 per cent achieving expectations in all three of reading, writing and mathematics) is formidable, so most schools will look for a baseline to reflect the value they add to their intake. Failure to stay above expectations for attainment and progress will put a school below the floor, so the stakes are high.

Nonetheless, the first and most important consequence of applying a baseline test is that you gain an early insight into your pupils, allowing you to design an appropriate curriculum and, in due course, to be credited for the value you add. For schools in disadvantaged areas, this will bring welcome recognition for the extra challenge of teaching children with low starting points, but schools in affluent areas may feel that they face a steeper challenge to reach even higher levels.

Many schools already use a baseline test of their own design. It is useful and important to establish what children can already do. However, schools will now have to choose from a selection of tests from external providers - the DfE will not be releasing their own. Most large publishers and assessment organisations have developed tests, and many of them have already been approved by the DfE. To ‘count’, you need to choose one that has been approved. The DfE will cover the basic cost of the test, but check the details of what each provider is offering so you’re aware of any additional costs for other services.

The test will cover the three areas of learning set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage – literacy, numeracy, and communication and language – though optional areas can be added at the discretion of developers. It will take the form of a 15 to 20-minute encounter between an individual child and a teacher or teaching assistant.

Some developers are employing on-screen tests; others are including an element of observation. Most will ask you to follow an outline script. Realistically, the test is likely to include counting, writing one’s name, a conversation or game, and co-reading a simple text. There will be mark schemes.

The logistics of organising the baseline assessment will be similar to the phonics check, so schools should plan ahead for the release of a member of staff to apply the baseline test within half a term of children arriving in school. This means a rolling programme if children arrive at different times of the year.

Can such a test be reliable?

Apart from the logistics, there is a significant question mark over the validity and reliability of a progress measure that compares counting at age four to the maths SAT at age 11, and the ability to write one’s name is not an exact precursor of success in grammar, expression or composition at a later date. It remains to be seen how fair those results will look in 2023.

The seven year gap is a long one. How many children who sit the initial test in 2016 will still be in the school in 2023? If you work in a school with high levels of mobility or demographic change, how fair will the comparison be? What are the chances that the DfE will become impatient before 2023 to compare the Year 6 results with another year, rather than the same cohort? A precedent has been set in secondary to base their new progress results on a different cohort of three years previous.

Most schools will look anxiously at the implications of the baseline test for their standing in the performance tables. A weak KS1 or Reception year will impair results currently based on excellent progress in KS2, but a strong Early Years department or an excellent KS1 will be rewarded.

The test will bring infant teachers more fully into the accountability system and end the artificial pessimism of KS1 assessments in order to boost perceived success in KS2. That problem will migrate to nursery where a great job would take the edge off progress. Let’s hope we do not see schools shopping for the baseline test that yields the lowest result!

The principled thing to do – and the one that teachers understand best – is to do one’s best for the children, to continue to stretch them for as long as you have them, and to choose the test that best suits your intake and your style. Great teaching always wins.

This article originally stated that the DfE would not cover the cost of the baseline test. It has since been corrected - the DfE has proposed to cover basic costs.


Sue Hackman is an Education Trainer, Consultant and Writer. She was Chief Adviser on School Standards at the Department for Education from 2006 to 2013, and has recently teamed up with Imaginative Minds to publish Climbing Frames, a print and digital assessment framework to replace the now defunct National Curriculum levels.


Image: Hall School Wimbledon (hsw.co.uk)

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