19 Jan 2017, Katy Morton
Written by an independent Assessment Review Group established by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the report – Readdressing the Balance, puts forward proposals for an alternative model of statutory assessment in primary school.
The proposals include the introduction of a start of primary school observation-based assessment that would be carried out by teachers during a child’s first year of school. The majority of the group were supportive of the baseline assessment taking place in the second half of the Autumn term to give children time to settle in.
The group, comprised of teachers and academics, recommends a single, nationally agreed assessment to ‘avoid a repetition of the problems experienced in 2015/16’ with the commercial baseline assessment packages, which resulted in the Government making a U-turn decision about introducing the tests.
Six providers were chosen by the Government in 2015 to offer the reception baseline assessments following a competitive tender process. Providers had to sign up 10 per cent of all primary schools by the end of April of the same year to be in with a chance of being on the Department for Education’s (DfE) approved list of providers to offer the baseline. Three providers – Early Excellence, Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) were successful in doing so.
In April 2016, the DfE announced the reception baseline would not be used as a starting point to measure children's progress after research concluded that the three baseline products were not 'sufficently'comparable to create a fair starting point from which to measure pupils’ progress. As a result, the results could not be used as the baseline for progress measures, as it would be inappropriate and unfair to schools.’
The Independent Assessment Review Group goes on to recommend ‘great care’ be taken when designing the assessment, with significant input from early years experts.
They suggest that the baseline assesment not just focus on literacy, language communication and mathematics areas of the EYFS, as was the DfE's focus, but cover a wider range of knowledge and skills, such as emotional well-being and early self-regulation.
As an alternative to the group, the idea that aspects of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) could possibly provide the information required for a baseline assessment was raised. However, members of the group were concerned that there was considerable risk in attempting to adapt the EYFSP and that any developments in this area should not risk interfering with effective early years practice.
Jan Dubiel, national director of Early Excellence - one of the providers chosen by the DfE to test a baseline assessment (EExBA), said, 'Early Excellence welcomes the NAHT report as a coherent, sensible and well researched response to changes in Primary Assessment.
'The issue remains that if we do resurrect a Baseline assessment to measure the starting point of a child’s time in school there has to be careful consideration of what this assesses and how this is assessed. The commitment to a practitioner-led observational assessment that takes into account all aspects of the child’s development – much like the principles of EExBA – is, of course, something that we would support.
'The recent history of 12,000 schools choosing this type of approach over the more "test" based models would suggest that there is a broad consensus in the community of what is preferred. We sincerely hope that the DfE take full account of this in any decisions that they take'
Both the Pre-School Learning Alliance and Early Education have, however, expressed concern by the report’s proposals to reintroduce baseline tests in reception.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said, ‘While we welcome the report’s recognition that early assessments should be observation-based and informed by early years experts, we remain concerned by the proposals that such assessments should take the form of a "baseline" test.
‘The Government has made it clear that it believes the purpose of baseline assessments is to "monitor school’s progress" and "assess school effectiveness’. Our concern is that any such assessment is likely to make supporting children’s learning and development a secondary consideration, and to place a disproportionate emphasis on narrow, "easy to measure" skills.
‘Our view remains that the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile is the best approach to a broad, observation-based assessment in reception year, and we note that the report identified a number of benefits of the Profile over and above baseline assessments.
‘As such, rather than trying to create a new assessment that does all the things that the EYFS Profile already covers, the Government should recognise the value of the Profile and its role in supporting early learning, and look to build on the progress that has already been made in this area.’
Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, 'The proposal to introduce a baseline at the end of the first term of the reception year is not, as the report clams "inescapable logic" but rather an attempt to make the primary assessment cart drive the early years assessment horse.The profile is the only current national dataset on the learning and development of children under five, and jettisoning it or shoehorning it into term one would be detrimental to the whole EYFS - which is far more than just a production line for primary schools.
'The report concedes the importance of any assessment being based on observation and going beyond a narrow range of knowledge and skills - in other words something suspiciously like the existing profile - but wants it to be brought forward to allow schools to take the credit for any value added by reception classes, and to be a valid baseline comparison with Year 6 results.
'The trouble is, that involves comparing tadpoles and frogs, so however laudable the objective may be of judging primary schools on more than just results, such a progress measure is inherently flawed, and it's time we acknowledge that and find a better solution.'
Teaching Union the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) echoed their concerns.
Nansi Ellis, assistant general secretary for policy at the ATL, said, 'ATL believes there should be no national testing of all pupils until they are ready to leave education.
'We think national sampling should be more widely used as a way for the Government to keep an eye on standards across the education system.
'Nationally developed assessment banks should be developed which teachers and schools could use to check their own judgements against nationally benchmarked assessments – to make sure that children across the country are reaching similar standards.
'We recognise that progress data seems to many to be a fairer way of judging schools, but the way the NAHT report proposes to measure progress relies on fair and accurate assessment in Reception, and we are not convinced that a fair assessment can be developed, for accountability purposes, in reception classes.'