I think a baseline test would be a great idea, mainly because I think we really need to know what some reception year teachers have to deal with before they can even get started with phonics! But before I give a little detail as to the positives, let’s tackle that old spiel about how allegedly ‘detrimental’ they are to children’s wellbeing.
Yesterday I read an article written by a former teacher, university professor and Ofsted inspector which stated various arguments ‘against’ implementing a baseline test for 4-5 year olds:
- Apparently, we don’t really know how to devise the perfect test
- Children learn in different ways/times, so any test will not be fair
- Young children are ‘volatile’ which means that tests would be inaccurate
- A school test won’t be measuring the full range of children’s achievements
- You can’t measure the most important things like self-confidence, collaboration and independence
- A test will cause children to worry, which will then stop then from learning
- Tests at age 11 are not comparable with tests at 4
- It’s best if the teacher just works with the child to find out about them
- Tests aren’t sensitive to the child’s individual needs
First off, there is no such thing as a perfect test. A perfect test only exists in the hypothetical future where somebody has invented a machine that can scan every neural connection in the brain and apply the universe’s most complex algorithm in order to formulate a result. All we mortals can do is give due attention to the possible imperfections of any test and try to mitigate against them. Lack of aforementioned machine is not a reason to abandon a regular test for 4-5 year olds.
Secondly, yes, children are different. This kind of baseline test will be measuring those differences so that limited resources can be efficiently and appropriately targeted; how is this not fair?
Thirdly, the fact that some little children can’t sit still and are prone to wild fluctuations in mood and responsiveness is not a reason to not have a baseline test. If anything, this kind of thing needs to be objectively measured so that schools can look at their whole-school behaviour policies in order to help the less ‘focused’ children progress towards being calmer, more focused and therefore able to learn (and not stop others from learning).
As for a baseline test not measuring all of a child’s ‘achievements’, why would you want it to? You might as well say that we shouldn’t have academic GCSEs because said GCSEs don’t measure teenagers’ achievements in the realm of getting a date, doing the moonwalk or creating a funny meme. The purpose of a test is not to pump up the ego of the testee; the purpose of a test is to test what is being tested. This brings me swiftly to the ‘fact’ that a baseline test doesn’t test the ‘most important’ things like self-confidence and collaboration. I’m not so sure personality traits associated with extroversion should be seen as ‘more important’ than being able to focus in order to learn how to read and write (note for people who will immediately misinterpret this: I’m not saying confidence etc is not important). Besides, I reckon a test could actually measure these sorts of things, if it were administered by a teacher.
Now for the matter of children getting worried: there really is no need for this. Life is a series of tests, especially for the young child. Has the author never experienced the ‘joy’ of ‘encouraging’ a toddler to eat their vegetables? A baseline test involving asking a child to separate some toys based on their colour pales into insignificance when compared to the mighty battles that have occurred between the tired mother and the tempestuous toddler. Despite the author’s fearsome academic credentials, I would suspect that assuming a baseline test would damage the wellbeing and self-esteem of a young child is somewhat out of kilter with the realities of day-to-day life of most young children, particularly the disadvantaged children (I’m also assuming the author is relatively wealthy and middle class too, as are most teachers it seems these days).
Finally, the SATs are comparable with baseline tests. This is because we would see whether prowess at SATs is correlated with ‘prowess’ at baseline. Of course, we should be careful not to confuse correlation with causation; however, a baseline test would essentially measure how much a child has been ‘taught’ at home by the parent and has therefore been given a leg-up towards being ready to learn. Conversely, a baseline test would also measure how much a child has not been parented and this is where I can finally talk about the benefits of a baseline test: surely it would be a good idea to really know what some reception year teachers have to deal with before they can even begin teaching the basics of literacy and numeracy? Some reception year teachers, especially those working in schools situated in areas of social and economic deprivation, have to do the following:
- Toilet training
- Teaching a child how to sit at a chair
- Teaching a child how to actually look at another human being’s face
- Teaching a child how to speak
- Teaching a child how to listen to another human being
- Identify and mitigate against various hitherto undetected issues such as glue ear, cavities, pinworms, headlice, ringworm, flea bites, fallen foot arches and other foot defects, malnourishment, neglect, tendency towards violent outbursts, syndromes genetic or metabolic in origin, ADHD, autism, hernias, short and long-sightedness, tablet computer addictions and chronic sleep deprivation
Although I’m usually against all things Big Brother, I can actually see whole host of benefits for a baseline test. Firstly, I would make them very simple and easy to administer by the teacher; software with an easy-to-use interface that is iPad-friendly would be great. I’m thinking questions for each child with yes/no answers that can be partially completed without the child present such as:
- Can the child sit in a chair for 5 minutes?
- Does the child make and sustain eye-contact?
- Does the child know any nursery rhymes?
- Is the child toilet trained?
- If you place 5 items in front of the child, and then take them away, can the child remember what the items were?
- Can the child separate some toys based on size, colour or material?
- Does the child say please and thank you?
- Does the child modulate the loudness of his voice based on whether he is indoors or outdoors?
- Can the child hear a whisper?
- Does the child enunciate well enough to be understood?
- Is the child alert for most of the day?
- Does the child know anything about the world around him such as where milk or eggs come from?
- Does the child share toys willingly?
- When a teacher says ‘No!’ or ‘Stop!’, does the child immediately do as instructed?
- Can the child self-soothe when he is upset (ie stop crying rather than escalate into tantrums or panic attacks)
Just writing these questions makes me think about the sheer amount of work teachers in reception year have to do. This is all work that normally comes under the banner ‘parenting’ that is not factored in any way into pupil progress meetings when it really should be because a) teachers who have more to deal with should be rewarded accordingly and b) the nation needs to know exactly how behind many children are developmentally, and this has nothing to do with being ‘ready’, rather it has to do with sheer lack of modelling and instruction at home (nothing comes naturally).
It would also be interesting if said baseline test also included an element of testing for how well a child could read, write and add up. This wouldn’t be because of an expectation that some miraculous academic achievement had occurred in two weeks of being in school, but because it would be interesting to know to what extent parents are supplementing their child’s formal education. I also have a sneaky suspicion that quantifying the extent to which parents are teaching phonics and early number facts might also finally expose the fraud that is ‘discovery’ learning and ‘natural development’ in EYFS.
So, let’s have a baseline test and not make a big fuss over it
Who’s with me?