Baseline tests

Secretary of State announces the introduction of 'baseline' tests for all five year olds in the first weeks of starting school.

In conjunction with SCAA, (currently piloting a scheme in collaboration with Peter Tymms of Durham University), the DFEE is to explore the introduction of teacher-based assessments of attainment in reading, writing and mathematics. The intention is to allow locally determined features (presumably at LEA level) to be used to construct the detailed assessments, leaving room for national diversity.

The stated aims are two-fold:

  1. To provide a 'screening' device for the monitoring of individual children so that, for example, very slow 'progress' can be picked up.
  2. To allow 'value added' comparisons between schools using the baseline assessments to 'adjust' key stage 1 and 2 test scores.

This initiative has the support of the Labour opposition and has been given a cautious welcome by the teaching unions.

There are, however, a number of serious reservations which need to be faced in the operation of any such schemes.

Currently, there is no clear consensus about the exact form and content of a suitable baseline assessment and there are a number of competing schemes, such as PIPS (Durham), the Avon scheme, etc. Whatever scheme is adopted it is already fairly clear that it will contain a large measure of unreliability since the first weeks at school are a period of rapid change for children. This implies that the use of such an assessment for individual screening and monitoring has limitations and care will be needed to avoid premature 'labeling'. Nevertheless, if it is coupled with reassessment at regular periods throughout the infant and junior phases, and careful record keeping, such a scheme could have important benefits.

The unreliability, however, also implies that these baseline assessments will be of limited usefulness for 'value added' school comparisons. We already know that, even for fairly reliable initial assessments, there is so much uncertainty surrounding value added estimates for individual schools, that only a minority of school can reliably be separated from each other. A paper describing this problem with full details appeared in the Journal of the Royal statistical society ( series A, 159, 1996 pp 385-443). In addition, by allowing different baseline assessment instruments to be used, any national comparisons are effectively ruled out. Also, there is considerable turnover in the primary phase of schooling, with some schools experiencing a majority of their children moving. This will make any comparisons extremely difficult with enormous expenditure of time and effort following up the mobile children. A research project is currently underway in Hampshire LEA looking at this issue. At best, therefore, it would seem that any value added school comparisons can only be done at local level and then, given the uncertainty, largely for the purpose of identifying 'extreme' poorly or highly achieving schools for possible further investigation.

Finally, there it makes little sense to suppose that the same baseline assessments could be used for both individual screening and institutional comparisons. If baseline assessments are to be used to judge institutions, teachers and others will be encouraged, even unconsciously, to maximize the apparent value added, for example by systematically underestimation of five year old attainments. The biases introduced in this way will not only undermine the validity of value added results but are also inimical to the faithful assessment of the progress of individual students where unbiased recording is essential.

For all these reasons, we need to view the current proposals with some skepticism. It is difficult to know at this stage how seriously the policymakers take these proposals, given that the problems discussed above are not unknown to many of them It is possible, for example, that the initial proposals will be changed to impose a more standardised baseline assessment, made more reliable perhaps by being longer or repeated frequently during the first year of schooling. It is also possible that a sophisticated (and expensive) scheme for following up children who move will be put into place. It would also be useful to know if there is to be an independent evaluation of the operation of any schemes.

Harvey Goldstein, 4/9/96

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