Last week the DfE announced a major rethink of one of the most controversial elements of their reforms to primary assessment and accountability: baseline assessment. This is a proposal which has been dogged by confusion and lack of clarity from the beginning.
Originally put forward in 2013 as part of a wide-ranging consultation on assessment in the primary phase, the argument went something like this:
1. Primary schools should be held accountable for the progress of their pupils, as well as their attainment.
2. Progress should be measured from the beginning of primary school.
3. Progress measures need robust inputs.
4. The way in which schools currently assess children in Reception isn’t robust enough to be used as part of a high stakes accountability system.
5. We therefore need to introduce new assessments to be used at the beginning of Reception.
6. These assessments need to accurately predict the future success of children, so as to judge the impact the school has had.
7. Reading and maths are the most important things children need to learn in primary school, so the assessments should focus on those.
8. We don’t want to impose a single model of baseline assessment on schools, so we’ll invite external suppliers to develop alternatives, and we’ll approve (and fund) those that meet our criteria.
9. We won’t make the assessments compulsory, but if schools don’t do them, they can’t be judged on the progress measure – meaning they’ll have to hit a new, more challenging attainment target in order to remain above the floor.
The response to this proposal was, it’s fair to say, not positive. Only a third of respondents to the consultation agreed that a baseline check in Reception should be introduced. Three quarters of respondents said that, if such a check was introduced, schools shouldn’t be allowed to choose from a range of commercially produced assessments, fearing that this would lead to ‘inconsistencies and confusion’.
Early years experts doubted both the validity of formally assessing such young children and the focus on such a narrow aspect of their education, and expressed concern about the potential for tests to distort children’s first experiences of school.
The government pressed ahead regardless, with the concession that it would commission a comparability study at the end of the first year, to ascertain whether it was, indeed, possible to use a number of different assessments for this purpose.
And it’s this study which proved the proposal’s downfall. The research, undertaken by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, concluded that “there is insufficient comparability between the three reception baseline assessments to enable them to be used in the accountability system concurrently” – just as three quarters of respondents to the consultation three years earlier had predicted.
What should we make of this?
The resulting announcement that baseline assessment in its current form was essentially being scrapped, and that primary schools would revert to being judged on children’s progress from the end of Key Stage 1 to the end of Key Stage 2, prompted widespread jubilation (and perhaps just a touch of understandable schadenfreude).
Personally, it’s left me feeling more frustrated than jubilant. Some elements of the argument for baseline assessment are, in my opinion, pretty compelling, but they’re undermined by some false assumptions and a botched implementation.
I strongly support the argument that it’s much fairer to judge primary schools, like secondaries, on the progress their children make, rather than solely on their attainment. Progress measures aren’t perfect, but they stand a better chance of recognising and rewarding the difference a school makes to a child’s life chances, rather than simply reflecting the demographic of its local area.
And if we’re going to have a progress measure, surely it makes sense for it to start from the beginning of a child’s time at the school, rather than halfway through? We know how crucial the early years are; it seems perverse to have a measure which does not reflect the hugely important and impressive work done by teachers in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, but actually incentivises schools to do this less well.
But these potential benefits have been sacrificed through a high-handed approach which didn’t listen to the wisdom and experience of people who really know about early education. People who argued that assessing such young children is complex, and needs to be carefully handled. People who argued that, while reading and maths are obviously vital, there are other skills and knowledge which are equally important in ensuring children are set up to learn. And, yes, people who argued that having multiple assessments was a recipe for ‘inconsistencies and confusion’.
This isn’t the end of the story. The government has made it clear that it remains committed to measuring the progress of pupils through primary school, and that it will consider, over the coming months, options for ‘improving assessment arrangements in Reception beyond 2016 to 2017’.
There is an opportunity here for a profession-led response to this challenge, to try to find a way forward which recognises and rewards the impact teachers at all stages of primary education have on children’s lives, without falling into the bear pits that scuppered this attempt. Let’s try to move beyond jubilation, schadenfreude and frustration, and embrace the challenge.