The UK government has abandoned the reception progress measure, but schools should not

This article was written for Schools Week and appeared on their website on 8/4/16.

I’m struggling to get caught up in the heat of debate over the government’s recent decision not to use the results of this year’s reception baseline testing for the purpose of comparing pupils’ progress.

Why? Three different assessments were never going to provide comparable results, and comparability is, seemingly, at the heart of this decision.

But maybe it’s not that simple.

Reception baseline discussions began under the coalition government, and implementation of the policy continued over into the current Conservative administration.

With a secretary of state keen to develop more positive relations with teachers and school leaders than her predecessor did, it doesn’t seem implausible to think that there is more to this decision than a lack of assessment comparability.

The three baseline tests – from Early Excellence, the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM), and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) – could never have produced comparable results. Different tests give different results, so it seems rather odd that comparability is the whole foundation for the decision to abandon their use as a progress measure.

Moreover, comparability was never a requirement for potential assessments in 2014. No mention was made in the criteria for potential assessments that comparability across different assessments was required, though that’s not surprising: it’s not a feasible goal.

But enough of my scepticism and rumination. What should schools do now?

Before you read this, I want to declare my vested interests in the assessment sector: my organisation delivers training to schools on the use and interpretation of CEM assessments and I have a professional bias. Nevertheless, I think that early years assessment, when used well, can provide huge benefits to schools and pupils alike.

And with the government continuing to fund reception baseline assessments for most schools in the 2016 to 2017 academic year, schools have choice over how they will be used.

With that in mind, I offer these three points to inform that choice:

1 – Assessments can, and should, promote learning

Assessment is “one of the most potent forces influencing education” (Crooks, 1988) yet it remains something of an unclaimed prize.

The removal of the accountability function from the reception baseline assessments can actually help schools claim some of that prize for learning.

By using a valid and reliable assessment, teachers can gain valuable insight into pupil ability and progress, and use this to begin asking questions about next steps in their teaching.

2 – A good baseline assessment is a tool, not an end in itself

For myriad reasons, many schools have developed a culture of “data-driven decision-making”, but being driven by data is highly problematic (especially if the quality of the data is unknown) and not advisable.

A more fruitful approach is to focus on “decision-driven data usage”: make choices about the education your school aims to provide, then choose assessments that generate valid and reliable data to help you achieve your ends.

A robust baseline assessment and follow-up progress measure used to support learning should be a prime candidate here, but it should feature as just one item in a school’s assessment toolbox.

3 – A good assessment is one which is: consistent over time, place and context; a valid test of the thing it claims to measure; valuable to those who use data derived from it; and has a clearly defined and defensible purpose.

Prof Rob Coe wrote a blog on the CEM website, Would you let this test into your classroom?, which offers a 47-question checklist. It gets quite technical in parts, but is about the most complete list for schools to use in assessing the quality of the assessments they adopt.

Techy, yes, but why not use it to challenge assessment providers to be transparent about what their tests can and cannot do? If you want a robust measure of pupils’ progress in the reception year – and you really should – you could do worse than pick up the phone and ask any one of the providers (or all three): “How valid and reliable is your assessment for the purpose of measuring pupil progress?” Do it.

In my opinion, the DfE has done a great – though unintended – service to learning by removing the progress measure function of reception baseline testing. Some may call it an own goal; I call it a prime opportunity for schools to begin reclaiming the prize of assessment.

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