I spent today delving into the details of the approved providers for the Reception Baseline Test (and, no, I’m not going to call them ‘assessments’ like the DfE and the approved providers all do, because they are tests). Worryingly, three providers couldn’t yet tell me how much their tests will cost (whoops). From the ones that could, a quick bit of maths says that implementing the baseline will cost the taxpayer around £5 million a year. By the time the first cohort makes it to Year 6, and the DfE is finally able to pretend that all this data is useful for accountability, they may have spent upwards of £35 million. In terms of teacher time, it was hard to get specific details about the time it will take to administer each test, but two figures that did come up were 15 minutes and 30 minutes. That must mean at least a week, if not two or three, of teacher time spent administering the test.
There are about 35 million reasons crashing around in my head as to why this is a monumental waste of time and money. For the sake of brevity, I’ll narrow it down to ten:
1. The incentive to ‘game’ the baseline is enormous: you literally couldn’t make it any bigger. The lower the starting point, the more progress the school can make with its children. This is not to say that schools would do this, but it seems very strange that the DfE suddenly trusts them not to, when they don’t trust them on pretty much anything else. (I’ll give you a clue why: not even the DfE would be brazen enough/could think of a way to give four year olds an externally marked test.)
2. There are all kinds of ways in which schools can accidentally-on-purpose ‘game’ the test. For instance, the DfE has apparently said that schools should wait until children are ‘settled’ before they do the baseline. But what does ‘settled’ mean? It can take some children a term or more to get over the Klingon-to-Mum thing. There is also a massive incentive to choose the baseline that looks most difficult (or the cheapest one if you’re worried about the DfE’s promise to reimburse you).
3. While it is to a school’s advantage for the children to do badly, early years settings will naturally want the children who leave them to do as well as possible. Before you can say ‘Make sure you don’t teach to the test!’ early years settings will react to what is in the baseline. And you can bet your bottom dollar that some parents will as well, cramming their 4 year olds with ‘practice baseline tests’ over the summer holidays.
4. The baseline tests are all completely different: some are internet based, others are done on tablets, some are paper based, others about using observations. There is no way you can compare one to another, and claim that they measure the same things in the same ways. There is no way you can moderate results, from one school to another, if schools are all using different tests.
5. Although the tests claim to test numeracy as well as literacy, in fact all the ones I have looked at basically test language acquisition. Or rather, test a child’s level of English. If you are a child with EAL, and you don’t yet know words such as ‘bigger’ or ‘longer’ in English, you will fail the numeracy questions. When I quizzed some of the providers about whether their tests were available in other languages, I was met with a puzzled silence.
6. Several of the tests are done online, or on a tablet device. Those children who are already confident and at home with technology will surely be at an advantage over others.
7. Some children taking the test will have only just had their fourth birthday, while others will already be five years old. In other words some children will be 25% older than others. We already know that being summer born has a big impact on a child’s results in tests. The difference here will be particularly stark, because the children are so young. When results are ‘reported to parents’, I sincerely hope that schools make this clear.
8. Some providers suggest that their tests could be given by a Teaching Assistant, as an alternative to a teacher. This rather puts the lie to the suggestion that the baseline is about teachers learning more about their new children. I’d also query whether you can expect a TA to be able to administer the test in exactly the same way as a qualified teacher.
9. Weirdly, some providers have included a test of whole word reading skills, in the apparent belief that children should be able to read when they start school. I’m not entirely sure what to make of that one.
10. The DfE baseline test page says: “We’ll cover the basic cost of approved reception baselines for local-authority maintained schools, academies and free schools.” I’m waiting a call back from them as to what “the basic cost” means. Several of the tests have consumable components (student marksheets) and I’m willing to bet those won’t be included. The page also says: “From September 2016, we’ll make sure that your school budget includes funds for the reception baseline.” Again, I’m waiting for clarification but let’s just say if I was a primary head teacher I would be laying good money on those funds coming out of another part of my budget.
In terms of which test I would recommend if you put a gun to my head, I’ll blog again once I’ve had a chance to look at samples from all the providers. At the moment, one test stands head and shoulders above the others, because it is based on an holistic view of early child development. It is not masquerading as a ‘computer based game’ that children will find fun and that teachers will find useful. But if it was up to me, we’d all boycott this atrocity. Because the words of the Manic Street Preachers keep ringing in my ears:
“If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.”