To the point - Wrong time to test

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Testing a young child is like pulling a seedling out of the soil to check whether it is growing a good root system, says Nancy Stewart

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You won't see the plant in its natural healthy condition, and you cause harm.

Formal testing and young children are such a bad combination that it is deeply worrying the Government reportedly intends to introduce compulsory tests for four-year-olds. This 'baseline' on entry to Reception will give useless information, and potentially be damaging.

Tests with closed answers cannot uncover a child's thinking and so are unreliable guides to how well children are learning and making sense of their world. One young child was marked as wrong on a language test when he looked at a picture of a rainy street scene and failed to 'correctly' complete the sentence: 'It's raining, so the people are getting ...' The required answer was 'wet', but the child said, 'No, they're not. Some have their umbrellas up.' Another lost marks for sorting farm animals into carefully mixed groups of 'friends' in fields, rather than the expected matched sets.

Cultural differences and varying experiences mean that every test is biased. In a vocabulary test showing a line drawing of a jug with a handle, some children who had no tea sets at home called it a 'mug', while others said it was a 'cafetiere'. Who is right? Is one a better learner than the other?

It may seem easy to score children on what they know. But differences in experience do not mean some children are stronger learners who could be expected to perform better six years later. Baseline tests are not valid because they measure the wrong things. Tests might record whether children can count or name objects, but they can't cover things such as motivation, curiosity, persistence, resilience and confidence, which are stronger predictors of how well children will go on to achieve.

The baseline approach is worse than useless. It will harm developing relationships during the crucial settling-in period, with the teacher busy administering one-to-one tests rather than establishing a supportive emotional climate for children in the transition to school. The test will also send exactly the wrong message to parents, who need to know that their children are not being narrowly judged but are valued as playful, powerful learners.

This is Nancy's final column.

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