And If You Tolerate This

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.”

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19 Responses to And If You Tolerate This

  1. Agreed… If baseline ‘tests’ is not a test, but an assessment – what is wrong with teachers on-going assessing – which they do already?

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  2. Celia Dignan says:

    Fantastic Sue. I also looked at the provider information and drew similar conslusions but you have put mu fumbled thoughts into words perfectly. I wonder if we came to the same conclusion on the ‘gun to the head’ one we’d recommend. I’ll just have to wait for your next blog to see!

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  3. Neil says:

    Did you notice that the DfE has stated that by 2022 it will make a decision as to whether the baseline vs ks2 results, or instead, ks1 to ks2 results, will be used to measure progress. So, all that money, all that time, all those years of experimentation, and this might not actually be deemed of value by those who insist on it. Is the DfE entirely convinced by its own reasoning?

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  4. I agree that one of them definitely stands out and if this one isn’t used, all the others need to be carried out on a 1:1 with between 15 – 30 minutes for each child. I have this awful vision of teachers spending the first few weeks of term in a corner “assessing” when they should be playing alongside children, finding out their interests and making informed judgements from high quality interactions. This film clip talks the stresses of starting school for both children and parents. Making relationships is key in those first few months, not being forced in a corner with a tablet!

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  5. philiprolt says:

    You and me both though I was approaching from a different angle. I was looking to see if they were available to International schools (so much recently isn’t, including printed SATS booklets) and what the cost was. I found out that the cost is pretty similar. I got an 80UKP plus 3 per pupil and an 85UKP plus a similar amount. I got a 220UKP per year per school and an option to buy test packs in addition.
    What I did find though was a worrying amount of materials that don’t feel as useful as what is already in place. A computer test completed independently that lasts 20 minutes and tells you the percentage probability of a child achieving L4+ in six years time! Really, that is what one provider told me. How is that ever going to be useful in setting aspirational targets?
    I found a provider that has a system that requires two tablet computers to administer. One is used by the teacher and the other by the student. So, if the student has had little exposure to tablets that surely will be quite a distraction.
    Another is basically a system of tick sheets that teachers fill in based on their own observations.
    This really is a mess. I suspect some cronyism in the appointment of providers. One hasn’t even completed their own trial of the materials yet and is in the process of trialling one thousand pupils. How on earth has that provider been given a license?
    And, a system mentioned above that still reports the probability of a L4 or above in six years time. That will be six years after the levels have finished. The information the test provides is clearly useless!
    To say I am disappointed is an understatement. This whole process is far better achieved by the current system of ongoing teacher assessment in a learning journal. That way we can still be aspirational about what children can achieve.

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  6. Pingback: Baseline assessment – my perspective | Living and teaching in Spain

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  8. ellenmerry says:

    Thank you for this. It is terrified to read this as a teacher and a mum of a very young 3 year old. What about baseline tests in social interaction, empathy and emotional intelligence? These are qualities I am far more interested in instilling in my young people. Scary.

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  9. ellenmerry says:

    Reblogged this on aworldwithoutwetwipes and commented:
    As a teacher and a mum of very young people, this makes a very interesting and scary read about the proposed baseline tests in primary schools.
    Why can’t we focus on children being children. Instilling values, positive social interaction, empathy and emotional intelligence?
    Number 6 worries me. The children do not use tablets or computers in our house at the moment as I believe – rightly or wrongly-they are too young (6, 3 , 1) and we have all of that to come. Therefore my children are already at a disadvantage on the test as we choose to read from a book and not a tablet. Teaching to the test will be inevitable and I am sick of our children being judged, measured, weighed against national averages. What about the individual and their right to have a childhood and room to grow?

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  11. “Assessment should not entail prolonged breaks from interaction with children …”
    Stat Framework for EYFS 2.2

    As 5 out of the 6 approved baseline assessments seem to take between 15 and 30 minutes per child on an individual basis, presumably with the teacher, I’d say that would be quite a prolonged break in total if you have a class of 30 Reception aged children! As far as I can see, only Early Excellence looks at the child’s engagement levels and also how children are learning which for me, is what’s important. It also supports the professional judgements of staff and doesn’t take staff away from the children in those vital first few months. I just hope those choosing and buying the assessment for their school know enough about early child development to make an informed choice.

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  12. Rose says:

    I didn’t know there were religious reasons for some people not to use electronic devices (other than Amish people). Would you mind giving more info on this please? I didn’t find anything useful on google and I think it’s something I should know about.

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    • suecowley says:

      Hi Rose, it’s Plymouth Brethren, I have taught children from this religion and they couldn’t look at screens. It’s not commonly found but I have spoken to another teacher recently who teaches some children from this religion. Also obviously we would need to make adjustments for children with a hearing or sight impairment as well.

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      • rose says:

        Interesting, never heard of it.
        I did some reading up and apparently Plymouth Brethren are allowed to use computers, phones, and other technology as long as they have strict filters so that no pornography can be viewed, which you would think means they could use school computers as these have filters installed.(Several of the organisations have websites). Plymouth Brethren religious schools apparently teach IT according to their website. I guess some parents maybe have different views but it doesn’t seem that it’s actually a current “rule” in that religion that they cannot look at screens. Apparently they or the leaders decided 5 years ago that computers etc were ok as long as filtered Internet (or presumably if they don’t have an Internet connection).

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  13. If you are concerned, why not sign a petition calling on the government to abandon baseline testing in favour of real, holistic assessment which values each child’s development: https://www.change.org/p/nicky-morgan-mp-scrap-baseline-assessment-in-reception-classes-and-keep-the-eyfs-profile-as-the-measure-of-children-s-progress-at-the-end-of-the-early-years-foundation-stage-eyfs.

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