Government defends controversial testing of reception-age children

By Joe Lepper

| 06 September 2019

The government is claiming that controversial testing of reception-age children can help improve their attainment at the age of seven, despite widespread concerns about the validity of the assessments.

The baseline assessment involves a 20 minute one-to-one check on a child by a teacher or teaching assistant. Picture: Monkey Business/Adobe Stock

The reception baseline assessment (RBA), which is being trialled in 9,400 schools from this month ahead of a national roll out in September 2020, aims to assess children's progress in primary school.

Newly released government analysis of an earlier trial of the RBA suggests that children's chances of reaching the expected standard in their Key Stage 1 assessments - which covers ages five to seven - increased when having a baseline assessment score.

This demonstrates "the baseline assessment's validity as an appropriate starting point to measure pupil progress", says a Department for Education statement on the analysis.

"The relationship between children's marks in the RBA and Key Stage 1 assessments exists across all areas - reading, writing and maths - both individually and combined," adds the statement.

The government analysis compared data of children who took part in a previous RBA trial in 2015 and tracked their progress at the end of Key Stage 1.

This found that for every one mark increase in their reception test, the odds of reaching the expected standard at the end of Key Stage 1 increased by 10 per cent.

"The baseline assessment will be a quick check of a child's early language and maths skills, but more importantly it will be a check of our school system," said education minister Nick Gibb.

"This research shows that the baseline assessment will provide a strong foundation from which we can measure pupil progress, and make sure schools are providing the high quality of education that every child deserves."

However, the assessment has been criticised by head teachers and academics, who say they that testing at such a young age is unreliable.

A new survey of head teachers carried out by University College London (UCL)'s Institute of Education and the More than A Score campaign, found that 86 per cent of respondents' comments about the RBA were negative.

One head teacher said: "The time spent doing these new assessments would be better spent getting to know the children, ensuring that they are settled, building resilience and confidence."

UCL associate professor Dr Alice Bradbury said: "Overall, the head teachers' views on RBA were largely negative, with even those who had some sympathy with the principle of assessing progress often expressing some concerns.

"There was some very negative language used in relation to this policy which suggests that some head teachers feel very strongly that this policy will not benefit schools or children."

Nancy Stewart, who is a member of the More Than a Score campaign and vice-chair of the Association for Professional Development in Early Years (TACTYC), added: "It (RBA) has no basis in academic theory or even simple logic.

"It is simply another way for the government to judge schools, using unreliable and unfair testing methods.

"A batch of reception pupils will be used as guinea pigs when they should be settling into school and the government still can't tell us how they'll use the data which will be extracted from these four-year-olds.

"It's time for the Department for Education to admit failure and halt the roll-out of this pointless and damaging experiment."

The RBA involves a 20 minute one-to-one check on a child and is carried out by either a teacher or teaching assistant. It is carried out in the first six weeks when a child starts reception.

It involves a series of tasks and activities looking at language, communication and maths skills.

Last year, an expert panel set up by the British Educational Research Association said the tests are "flawed, unjustified and wholly unfit for purpose".

To offset the additional work involved in the RBA, the government is to scrap Key Stage 1 tests in primary schools.

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