"Baseline tests will not only be unreliable and invalid, but threaten to do harm to young children’s education". Ken Jones, from the National Education Union, takes a look at the problems with Baseline assessment.

At the end of last year, the government asked for bids to deliver reception baseline assessment. The outcome will be known in March, with the winner providing an ‘assessment instrument’ which will:

  • Involve 99% of the cohort
  • Last for around twenty minutes
  • Be conducted through the medium of English
  • Focus on language, literacy and numeracy – with perhaps some attention to measuring ‘self-regulation’.

This is Baseline - a test of four-year olds. Its purpose is not to support young children’s learning, but to hold schools accountable for their progress between the early days of reception through to KS2 SATs. 

Its design assumes that all schools are 4 - 11 primary schools, with children remaining at the same school throughout. The briefest of reality checks would suggest that this isn’t the case: research by the Royal Society for the Arts has found that for every ten pupils who move from primary to secondary school another six move primary schools during the same school year.

Baseline assumes that it’s possible to test a young child and have confidence in the results. Statisticians don’t agree.  ‘If you are testing a four-year-old,’ says Harvey Goldstein, Professor of Social Statistics at Bristol, ‘you cannot get a very reliable test’.

The DfE also claims that a baseline test can be a good predictor of children’s future attainment – and that schools can therefore be held accountable for deviations from the prediction that baseline makes. Again, researchers dispute this. Value-added scores cannot be causally attributed to school performance. Socioeconomic background is a much stronger influence on progress than any school effect.

This cluster of problems explains why organisations which provided baseline assessment last time it was tried are openly sceptical about the value of the new tests. Early Excellence, which was favoured by 11,000+ schools in 2015/16 told Schools Week that the new assessments would lead to test results that ‘will not accurately reflect what the children know and understand’, and ‘provide data that is meaningless’. The Centre for Educational Measurement at Durham University told The Guardian that a test of young children without a formative element was ‘verging on the immoral’. The National Foundation for Educational Research were likewise less than enthusiastic. They told the website Education Uncovered that they were ‘evaluating whether a valid and reliable assessment can be delivered to the specification’

Baseline tests will not only be unreliable and invalid, but threaten to do harm to young children’s education. The reception curriculum is already at risk of being narrowed and formalised – Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report is a clear pointer in that direction, and Baseline will steer schools towards the same limited idea of practice. The results of the test, which will be fed back to schools in some form, may well encourage the early labelling of children. Children’s first few weeks of primary school will become test focused.

Can we stop Baseline assessment?

Baseline is due to be implemented in 2020, with a large-scale pilot in 2019. There is ample time to stop it, and in the process to make the case about everything else that is wrong with primary assessment. More Than a Score, the coalition of parents, teachers and education experts supported by the National Education Union, is campaigning against our current test-driven system of primary education. Details of how to get involved can be found on their website.