Baseline tests are flawed – their introduction should be scrapped

Janet Downs's picture
I’ve got a new T-Shirt. It’s printed with this slogan:

‘Primary Charter 4 Too Young to Test’.

A bit of fun? Yes. But there’s a serious message.

This Government could well be described as the snatcher of childhood. It plans to test all 4-year-olds on their maths, literacy and communication skills at the start of their school lives.

It is important, of course, to assess children’s learning during their time in reception. This already happens in England. But it’s based on careful observation and interaction not formal, standardized tests.

It’s not as if these baseline tests haven’t been tried before. They were introduced in 1997 but abandoned in 2002. Why? Because they didn’t support children’s development and were time consuming to administer.

Children in England are already among the most tested in the developed world. There’s evidence that exam-related stress among children is increasing. If these tests go ahead, our reception tots will be among the very youngest to undertake formal assessment.

So why is the Government introducing these tests? They’re supposed to provide a baseline from which to forecast future progress. At the end of primary school, each pupil’s test results will be matched against this expected progress. As Professor Colin Richards says, ‘It all sounds very sensible and straightforward.’

But it isn’t. As Professor Richards points out, devising an accurate test at for such young children is impossible.
4-year-olds are lively and have short attention spans – test performance can be affected by such things as time of day, willingness to co-operate and age (summer born children are particularly likely to be adversely affected). At the same time, these little children pick up signals and could be affected by test-related anxiety from teachers or parents.

The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) also has doubts. In addition to the points above, it’s concerned the tests would ‘unfairly label children’. They focus on a limited range of skills: maths, literacy and communication and divert attention from supporting children’s social and emotional development during their first few weeks in school.

The well-regarded Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, already in place, is to be dropped ‘in favour of a flawed and unreliable assessment system that poses a major threat to children’s experience of early education.’

PACEY and Professor Richards are not alone. A chorus of voices is against these tests including author Philip Pullman who is among 80 signatories to a Guardian letter arguing why the tests should be stopped; the British Association for Early Childhood Education, NUT, TACTYC, Save Childhood Movement, Professor Cathy Nutbrown and John Coe of the National Association for Primary Education.

‘What is offered is not assessment, it is purely the gathering of flawed data,’ says John Coe.

And that ‘flawed data’ together with all other test results and Morgan’s proposal for children to be tracked into adulthood via their tax records will prove an irresistible lure for companies wanting to get their hands on such information. There are Data Privacy issues here which haven’t yet been discussed.

Perhaps parents should be very worried about the information being held about their children and the unnecessary stress put on them to gain this data. Most of it has no educational value.

See Michael Rosen talking at an event yesterday in Lloyd Park Walthamstow. He calls on parents to say No to the tests and call on their schools to exercise their right to opt out. (The lady holding the speaker is wearing the T-shirt!)
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John Mountford's picture
Wed, 20/05/2015 - 16:14

Another interesting critique that outlines exactly what is at stake for the present generation of school-aged children and their families. I have been following similar stories coming out of America (Nancy Bailey) where parents are taking direct action against the testing there by withdrawing their children at key times.

This is exactly where we encounter the first obstacle to parents who would wish to do the same here. I wonder how long it would take for a family, disposed not to allow their child to take part in this type of interaction at such an early age, to be prosecuted for non-attendance if they dared to make it know that their child had been kept away from school deliberately?? Technically, the school would be legally obliged to declare such an absence unauthorised. I guess the only way to combat such an action would be for parents to act in concert, as it is my understanding they do in some districts in the States. When governments act against the good of the people, they are justified in taking such affirmative action including acts of civil disobedience.

Janet, you are right to point out that the current proposals infringe children's rights also. If not at this age, then when are children supposed to play, to be free to explore social inertaction with their peers, to develop their fine and gross motor skills in an environment carefully structured to encourage and allow this and to have opportunities to discover what interests them about the world at large through play??

The arguments for introducing this particular testing regime are morally, educationally and constitutionally bankrupt.

It shouldn't be left to professionals to campaign alone on such an important issue.

There has to be a way of making sure this action by our newly elected, minority supported government, is debated openly, honestly and that the voices of parents and professionals are clearly heard.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/05/2015 - 17:29

John - in theory, schools can opt out of the baseline tests. However, if they do so they would then be judged on attainment only at age 11 rather than progress. Russell Hobby says this might be a gamble schools would not be prepared to take as he explains here.

It's unclear what would happen to parents who wanted to opt out if their schools decided to opt in.

NUT voted to boycott the baseline tests - hence the campaign to get parents on side.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 20/05/2015 - 18:43

Interesting links, Janet. The political commentaries on the proposed boycott leave me utterly convinced there is not a hope that our enlightened leaders will ever listen to the professionals. The other thing it teaches me is, on this one issue there is absolutely no difference between the parties and it's another indication of how dire political thinking (a complete misnomer there) has become.

I hope parents and governors will get behind the NUT and that the other unions will see that this is a chance to send a strong signal to the nation that education reform should no longer be in the hands of politicians who are all too short-sighted and stupid when it comes to deciding what is appropriate for children.

agov's picture
Sat, 23/05/2015 - 12:41

"they would then be judged on attainment only at age 11 rather than progress"

Presumably that would not apply to junior schools?

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 23/05/2015 - 13:29

agov - that's an interesting point. I presume you're talking about junior schools which have no infant departments so would not have been involved in baseline tests. Would these junior schools take the results of the baseline tests (if known)? If so, how much of the progress at 11 was down to the junior school or the infant school? Would the junior schools measure from KS1 assessment tests which I believe are all teacher marked? (Not sure about KS1 tests because results aren't in the public domain).

agov's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 09:48

Yes Janet, I was asking about Y3 - Y6 junior schools so they would not directly have been involved in KS1 baseline tests.

Currently RAISEonline, as you know, provides measures of progress from KS1 to KS2. I suppose in future it would include something about KS1 baselining?

Previously Ofsted 'Subsidiary guidance' said -

"Junior schools
169.Key Stage 1 assessment results are the most important source of evidence on prior attainment. However, inspectors should take account of any assessments the school makes of pupils’ attainment on entry and check that the school has quickly and correctly identified those pupils that did not meet the Key Stage 1 thresholds and, conversely, those that exceeded the thresholds.

That has now disappeared but the 2015 'School inspection handbook' says under "Achievement of pupils at the school" -

"195. Inspectors must take account of:
- the school’s own records of pupils’ progress, including the progress of pupils who attend off-site alternative provision for all or part of the week, and the progress of disadvantaged pupils, or those for whom the Year 7 literacy and numeracy catch-up premium provide support, and the most able pupils such as those who joined secondary schools having attained highly in Key Stage 2
- the quality and rigour of assessment, particularly in Key Stage 1

I suppose junior schools would continue to do their own baselining of Y3 children and that Ofsted would not be excluding junior schools from progress expectations.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 25/05/2015 - 09:57

agov - thanks. I'm glad I'm retired. I was only expected to record marks (out of 10, out of 30, A-G, whatever) in a mark book not record 'progress' of different categories of pupils.

For some of the bottom set pupils I took, 'progress' was keeping them in school long enough so they took the English exam. Or turn up for it (I remember the desperate car dash to get pupils to the exam room in time. Or having a biro.

agov's picture
Tue, 26/05/2015 - 12:07


All long gone I'm afraid, Janet. Have to have evidence of progress of particular groups such as SEN, Pupil Premium, More Able, girls, boys and I don't know what else vis-à-vis school data, national data, and probably LEA data. And then there's things like how well they perform at secondary school compared with children from other primary feeders. Or anything else that might be useful. And then there's staff pupil progress meetings and decisions about whether or which children should be withdrawn from normal classes to be given extra teaching/support in English or maths.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 07:08

'Icing on the Cake' has written a further critique of baseline tests here. The summary says:

'Despite widespread concern about the validity and reliability of any assessments of young children voiced by the majority of respondents to the government’s consultation on its plans, Baseline Testing is being introduced as an explicit accountability measure. Those providing the Baseline tests have glossed over this key purpose and implied that the tests are actually formative assessment tools which will benefit schools. Those selling tests to schools have every incentive to accentuate the positive in their products. Those working in schools should know what may not be made explicit.'

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