Reception baseline assessment tests explained for parents

Reception assessment tests explained for parents
Starting school used to be about settling in, making new friends and learning to be independent. Then ‘Reception tests’, due to take place within weeks of walking through the school doors, were announced. We explain the latest developments as regards the Reception baseline check.

In September 2016, the Department for Education was due to introduce national testing for all Reception-aged children in England. 

The purpose of the 'baseline check' was to assess each child’s level of development at the beginning of their formal schooling in order to measure how they’ve progressed by age 11. The government suggested the new tests would ensure higher standards and that all pupils would receive the attention they deserve.

Baseline check latest developments

In summer 2016 the baseline check was put on hold, indefinitely, and teachers have been instructed to continue to complete the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (a broad assessment of your child’s abilities in all areas of their learning and development) for the 2016-17 academic year, pending further decisions about assessment in Reception.

The decision has been made because the government has conceded that the three different methods of baseline assessment that schools are able to choose from – a computer-based assessment, an assessment based on tasks and observation, and an observation-only assessment – are not comparable. The same child could take all three types of assessment and come out with different results. This means that the results of the baseline assessment can't be used as a comparison between schools, or to accurately measure children's progress from Reception to Year 6.

The DfE says, '(A) study has shown that the assessments are not sufficiently comparable to provide a fair starting point from which to measure pupil progress. In light of that, we will not be using this year's results as the baseline for progress measures. This would be inappropriate and unfair to schools.'

How do Reception assessments work?

As parents we need to bear in mind that teachers already assess our children when they start school but the baseline tests were intended to be more formal, taking place during the first few weeks, when most children are just aged four.

Schools will still be able to use the baseline assessments themselves for their own information, but they're not obliged to do so. As you may still hear about the Reception baseline test in the media, or your child's school might be using it, we have provided some parents' information to keep you informed.

Designed to give teachers and schools a clearer picture of each child’s initial skills, the baseline tests indicate a child’s ‘baseline’ abilities in very basic literacy, reasoning and cognition (how a child understands and acts in the world). Any test reported results would have been supplemented by teachers' broader assessments and observations of a child’s development.

What do the Reception baseline tests look like?

Schools were free to choose from a number of approved assessments.

  • About a third of schools were planning to opt for tests carried out one-to-one with a Reception teacher, which focus on the very basics of learning such as counting, picture, letter and number recognition. The NFER assessment uses common Reception classroom resources like counting bears, plastic shapes and number and picture cards. Children work through the activities (it takes around 30 minutes) while the teacher records the child’s progress on a digital device or in individual paper pupil booklets.
  • The other two-thirds of schools had decided to use an assessment that relies on teachers' observations of children's skills within the normal day-to-day school routine. This method of assessment, devised by a small educational consultancy called Early Excellence, is approved by the Department for Education and designed so that children don't even know they're being tested. 

What’s the thinking behind baseline tests?

By giving each child a baseline assessment when they first start primary school, schools would not only have a clearer idea of how much progress their pupils are making but should also help teachers identify which children are likely to need most help. The government felt that baseline tests would also help to recognise the good progress that schools make with children from a low starting point.

As part of the wider changes to primary assessment, the current Phonics Screening Check, carried out at the end of Year 1 to assess reading progression, will remain unchanged.

From September 2014 a new primary-school grading scheme has been introduced to replace the current system of national curriculum levels.

From summer 2016 more challenging tests (updated SATs) have reflect the new curriculum at the end of the key stages. Children will also be matched against ‘performance descriptors’ (in other words what pupils are expected to know and be able to do at the time of testing) when being assessed by their teachers at the end of Key Stage 1 and 2 to see if they’ve achieved the expected standard. 

How did parents and teachers react to the prospect of Reception assessments?

The idea of testing children did’t please the majority of parents. Children of just four and five already have to contend with the anxiety of starting school and are often daunted by unfamiliar tasks at this age. Concentration levels may well be an issue too, particularly for summer-born pupils who’re likely to be a whole year younger than their autumn-born peers. “I understand that teachers need to see what my child is capable of but I don’t think formal testing is the answer,” said Nicola Wright, mum to Eliza, 3. “Eliza’s a shy and anxious child as it is and starting school is going to be an anxious enough time for us both without adding any further pressure.”

Tests administered on a one-to-one basis are time-consuming for teachers too. “This is another indication of the ongoing schoolification of the early years,” said Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance. “It’s deeply concerning that policymakers attach little value on childhood and the basic right of our young children to play, explore and experience the wonders of the world they are growing up in.”