Scrap ‘damaging’ tests for four-year-olds, say teachers

Baseline assessments cause infants to be grouped by ability before they are settled in reception, says study

New national tests for 4-year-olds should be scrapped because they create unnecessary workload and risk damaging pupils, while producing no useful information, teachers and academics warned today.

The government’s controversial baseline assessments are leading to infants being grouped by ability before they have had time to settle into Reception class, according to research commissioned by the ATL and NUT teaching unions.

The study by the UCL Institute of Education in London also shows that the additional work created by the assessments is forcing some schools to pay extra for supply teacher cover.

One teacher told researchers: “There is no time given to these children to settle in before they are assessed and, in our school, they are put into ability groups based on these results.”

Another said: “I did have children who were crying and I just couldn’t get anything out of them at all because they were too upset.”

The effect of labelling children

Guy Robert-Holmes, a co-author of the research, said: “When children begin to be put into groups and labelled, that sticks with them. That does affect four-year-olds’ or five-year-olds’ self-esteem and mindset about whether they are going to be successful learners.”

Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT, said: “If a baseline assessment is being used to group four-year-olds by ability then that’s a terrible thing to do.”

She warned that the assessments were limiting teachers, not helping them, and had gone “from problematic to frankly dangerous”. The research is based on a survey of 1,100 teachers and headteachers, which shows that the majority (60 per cent) think that the assessments – introduced in September – do not give an accurate reflection of what children can do.

Almost a third of teachers (31 per cent) said that the assessments had damaged their relationship with pupils.

‘No useful information’

Dr Alice Bradbury, who led the research team, said: “The study found that baseline assessment is seen by teachers as ineffective and potentially even damaging because it is time consuming, it distracts from the important settling-in period in reception and it does not provide any additional useful information.

“There are serious doubts about the accuracy of baseline as an assessment, particularly given the age of the children, and as a result there are real questions over its value.”

Baseline assessments were introduced as a way of measuring pupil progress throughout primary school by comparing a child’s baseline score with their results in Year 6.

Although the baseline is not mandatory, the government has said that from September it will be the only way to measure progress – a key component of the floor targets used to decide whether an individual school is underperforming.

As a result, primaries refusing to participate in the assessment will be judged on their key stage 2 test results without pupils’ prior attainment being taken into account.

A variety of assessments

Schools can choose between three different baseline assessments. Around 70 per cent of schools have chosen to sign up for the Early Excellence version, which teachers complained did not allow room for nuanced judgements and could artificially deflate pupil scores. Under the scheme, teachers are expected to assess their pupils using “yes” or “no” questions and there is a fear that any doubt could automatically see them being given a “no”.

But Jan Dubiel, the national development manager for Early Excellence, said that the breadth and variety of scores in the assessment did allow “nuance” and “a rounded, holistic view of the child”.

In the research, teachers also raised the concern that the other two schemes, offered by Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), could allow pupils to guess answers correctly from multiple-choice questions.

But Professor Robert Coe, from the CEM, said that the assessment was accurate and had enough questions to ensure that any guesswork was “cancelled out”. The NFER said that 98 per cent of its baseline users considered the assessment to be at least satisfactory, and 84 per cent said they thought that the scheme was good or better.

However, Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, said that most schools were continuing to use their own assessments because the baseline schemes did not give them the information that they needed.

“The baseline assessment has never been designed to be useful for teachers,” she said. “It is only designed to give a number for accountability purposes.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want to measure the progress that all pupils make. That means ensuring we have a robust and fair baseline.

‘It just piles on the work’

Teachers expect a new government system for the assessment of Year 6 pupils’ writing to dramatically increase their workload when it is introduced next term.

Department for Education guidance published this week suggests that teachers check six different pieces of work for every pupil against up to 33 different statements, making a possible total of 198 new boxes to tick per child.

Under the previous system, teachers made a holistic judgement, using their knowledge of a pupil’s work. Headteachers fear that the new system could amount to an extra two days’ work per year for every Year 6 teacher.

It will involve them checking work against a list of statements such as “mostly uses commas for lists” and “uses passive verbs mostly appropriately”.

Michael Tidd, who is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, says: “Before, we didn’t tick boxes. Teacher assessment was part of the job and so it didn’t really need any time because we were doing it anyway. Now we have to collect evidence and it will add hours of work, perhaps 30 minutes per child, which all adds up across a class of 30.”


This is an article from the 12 February edition of TES. This week’s TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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