Baseline testing: science or fantasy?


There’s nothing hidden in your head
The Sorting Hat can’t see,
So try me on and I will tell you
Where you ought to be.

The new Baseline Assessments are a new model of Sorting Hat imposed by the government on England’s children. They are flawed from start to finish.

The DfE state openly that these tests have been introduced to judge each school’s effectiveness by the progress children are making. The combined results of the baseline test will be compared to the combined results in KS2 SATs.

Even if you agree with the need for such comparisons – which assumes there is a large variation between primary schools’ effectiveness – it will be impossible to make fair judgements on the basis of six different forms of test.

The fairness of the tests in judging a whole school depends on their accuracy for each individual child. Our earlier post demonstrated the wide range of KS2 SATs outcomes achieved by children starting from the same baseline. Of all the children starting off with an average baseline score, 17% end up with Level 3, 56% with Level 4, and 27% with Level 5. This is a massive spread. Rather than a precision tool, the DfE are handing teachers a sawn-off shotgun. And this is from the most experienced provider of predictive tests!

As you might expect, children with low baseline scores are more likely to get Level 3s than children with high baseline scores, and vice versa, but beyond that you can’t predict very much at all. In every case there is a massive spread. Some children with low scores get Level 5s and some with high scores get Level 3s. In each case, children starting off with identical baseline scores diverge across 60-80% of the KS2 attainment range. Yet CEM boast of their test’s “excellent predictive validity”!

The child-friendly façade

To sell their tests, all six companies try to sound teacher-friendly and child-friendly. One of them, Early Excellence, doesn’t use a test at all: it is based entirely on observation over half a term, including everyday activities and play. The problem is that their rhetoric about each child’s unique development is undermined by accepting the rules of the game:

  • the teacher has to decide Yes or No to each question, with no partial achievement (eg “Links sounds to letters, naming and sounding the letters of the alphabet” yes or no?)
  • no account must be taken of the child’s age, even though such young children mature and learn very fast
  • each child must be given a score, from 0-56.

In the end, Early Excellence are like all the others in reducing a child’s complex achievement and development to a single score and placing them in rank order. By seizing this opportunity to grow their business and make a lot of money, they have fatally compromised their principles.

Determining each child’s future

This raises serious ethical questions for schools. Baseline Assessment creates the illusion that you can accurately determine a child’s future potential even at the age of 4. These tests actively encourage teachers to view children as low, average and high ‘ability’, as if their performance has nothing to do with early experiences and opportunities, or indeed the debilitating effects of growing up in poverty. It will place a ceiling on many children’s future development, since these labels become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In other words, this is a sorting hat that creates the outcomes it claims only to predict. Indeed, some of the providers actively encourage this. One shows an assistant head saying on video: “By the end of two weeks we knew exactly where the children were, and we could put them into groups for their literacy and maths and reading.”

Even child-friendly Early Excellence claims “If a pupil’s attainment does not match their ability, we are able to identify potential barriers.” How they can calculate a child’s ability as distinct from her attainment remains a mystery – Sorting Hats, maybe?

There’s nothing hidden in your head
The sorting hat can’t see.

sorting hat 4 hermione

The entire accountability system will reinforce this illusion. Ofsted will arrive on the scene and ask for data on the progress made by “low-ability children” in Y4 as measured by the baseline tests. The spurious concept of a child’s predetermined “ability” or “potential” turns into a reality.

Another verse from the Hogwarts sorting hat song goes like this:

I sort you into Houses
because that is what I’m for.
But this year I’ll go further,
listen closely to my song:
though condemned I am to split you
still I worry that it’s wrong.

Dividing up children from an early age is the blight of England’s dysfunctional education system. It concentrates disadvantaged children together, segregating them from pupils with wider vocabularies and life experience. Often it means subjecting them to more restricted, tedious and demotivating activities. It doesn’t take long for a child to decode the label and decide he can’t be very bright since he’s on the Elephant table. Baseline assessment scores give a veneer of scientific accuracy to this problematic practice.

We share the Sorting Hat’s concern, as do many teachers. The only ethical and professional response is to boycott these tests.

This entry was posted in Accountability, Curriculum, GERM and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Baseline testing: science or fantasy?

  1. This seems to me a strong and necessary counterblast. Thanks. ‘Ability’ is increasingly revealed as the new IQ. Fixed ‘ability’ thinking is everywhere apparent in these tests, and in the system they help sustain and confirm. Teachers will, I hope, move to boycott the Baseline tests. Ideas which run directly counter to those enshrined in these tests, and to the notion of supposedly predictable pupil progress, happily continue to win a hearing. See for example the Learning without Limits studies and website.


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