The damaging nonsense of baseline assessment

A comment by John Coe for the National Association for Primary Education (NAPE)

Some daft ideas have come out of the DfE in recent years and this is one of the daftest of them all.

The government’s u-turn regarding primary assessment (DfE 0012102, 2014) was a move in the right direction but, needless to say, remains obsessed with using children’s test results as a measure of accountability. As we move away from “all children are expected to reach the same standard by a specified school year” to the assessment of children’s progress, schools will be seeking a more comprehensive way of summing up children’s growth and learning though the primary years. But, even before we got down to the far from easy task of defining progress and how to assess it, the number crunchers have come charging in and demanded that there should be a baseline against which all future progress can be measured.

Progress is seen by those who love their data as improvement in test scores, but only in two subjects mind you. They love numbers you see – a number has an often spurious claim to validity simply by being a number.

No matter that the proposed baseline is to be a record of the testing of four and five year old children right at the beginning of their school life. Most government statisticians wouldn’t know one end of a four year old from the other but they should take advice from the specialists who deal with them every day.

All the major associations which embody expertise in the field of early childhood are united in opposing baseline assessment. We are trying to tell those who have such misguided respect for testing that the 30 minutes with a teacher, however patient and understanding, alongside a very young child will provide little that is accurate and worthwhile in the longer term. The baseline will be so shaky that it will invalidate all subsequent measures of progress. Children change as they grow older and we teachers are committed to helping them change for the better.

Even worse, the “results” of such testing will get out, parents will (and should) know what judgements the school system is making of their children and then great damage will be done. We will be identifying many children as failures (at the age of four!) and this could have a profound and negative impact on their future lives and learning.

Government ministers, perhaps listening to vestigial consciences, have tried to avert criticism by saying that the assessment is voluntary. So schools are between the devil and the deep blue sea. Voluntary it may be but the alternatives – totally unreliable measurement of progress or the old crude reliance on absolute ‘floor levels’ for attainment — are both unacceptable. If a school is naive enough to take up the offer, teachers will still find that assessment in Year 6 will be against floor standards as well as against baselines.

The DfE has commissioned six providers to offer schemes for our consideration and has written a brief for them which, surprise,surprise, emphasizes competency in language, literacy and mathematics. The nonsense is made all too clear when we find that only one of the providers includes information from parents about their children. Hard to credit isn’t it – five of the providers working on the basis of criteria supplied by the DfE ignore the advice and judgement of the people who know the children far better than anyone else! What is offered is not assessment, it is purely the gathering of flawed data.

We must hope that the election in May will lead to second thoughts about this daft proposal. A new government must start to trust those who are closest to the children.


John Coe, National Association for Primary Education

and the Oxford School of Thought.

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1 Response to The damaging nonsense of baseline assessment

  1. Richard Parker says:

    I am prompted to offer two comments neither original but apposite non the less:
    First, in seeking to count the (apparently) countable we simy miss what is really important (sometimes called the McNamara fallacy).
    Second – if you can count it, it probably isn’t it


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