Baseline tests for 4yr olds: my humble opinion

Yesterday @reclaimschools posted this blog which has lifted information off suppliers promotional webpages sample questions for 4yr olds new baseline tests: http://reclaimingschools.org/2015/03/21/test-questions-for-4-year-olds/

I have no idea if these questions really do reflect what will be in the test, nor do I know much about early years curriculum. However, I am a SpLD specialist tutor/assessor so am acutely aware of what the tests are testing. Like many others, I think the whole idea is unworkable and so am stating my opinion below.

One thing that was made very clear when I did my AMBDA was the need to work in a quiet, clear, comfortable, well lit & ventilated room. I don’t always manage this at work, the college could do better but the rooms are ‘reasonably sufficient’. So how will the tests be administered at school? Will they be at whole-class level, small group level, individual or as a mixture? Who will administer the tests? The teacher, a HTLA or a TA? What training will they have had on interpreting the results?

One thing that should be shouted out is that tests do not diagnose anything, people do. Baseline tests may act as a screener, but they can only do so if the person administering them is qualified to understand and interpret them. I don’t mean that with any disrespect to early years teachers, but I do know that in general, they do not have the level of qualification that I do. In turn, I do not have the level of qualification that an EP does – although I’m not actually that far off!

So, (not knowing who will administer, I will refer to this person as A) will A know what to do with the test results once they have them? Will they sit on a shelf being ignored? Or, horror of horrors, will they be used to organise sets, from which a child may find themselves ‘stuck’ in for the next few years? With the new SEND reforms something even worse could occur – the manipulation of the results. Rather than identifying potential problems early, there is the potential to ‘hide’ low results for fear of having to pay for an EP to come visit, or deflate high ones so they can be ‘value-added’ or whatever is appropriate policy/tracking or whatever to that age & stage. It’s not that far-fetched. I am very aware that many pupils keep working on their SATs papers until they get the ‘right’ result. I’ve observed the practice across a range of schools & I doubt the problem is just a local one.

The SENCoP asks for teachers to carry out mini-action researches to see if interventions are working. Cynically you could say that it’s because the government doesn’t trust teachers to actually teach. Given my past history with my boys’ (local primary) school & my work as a SEND advocate, I could easily share that view but I do stop & check myself as there are loads of really good teachers out there. So what if your children don’t get a really good, or even a common-or-garden good teacher? Another disincentive to identifying a child’s needs?

I recognise the tests are checking for the likes of phonological awareness & working memory & I know adults who would ‘fail’ these questions although they hold down decent jobs. I also recognise that interpreting results is a complex matter when you’re potentially dealing with children with SEND, children with English as a second language, children with turbulent home lives & so on.

So I’m thinking back to my youngest, something more easily done now we have video cameras to track them through time & space unlike we’ve ever done before as we no longer have to rely on our unreliable memories. My son is hyperlexic, his realisation that symbols carry meaning was virtually switched on at birth. He always pointed to words and numbers & wanted to know what they said (like the overhead signs in a supermarket). By his 3rd birthday he was beginning to talk in single words, but could easily sight read 40+ words. By 4 he spoke in simple sentences, but declared to his nursery teachers that their wall sign said ‘[village name] train station’. They were puzzled though as he had no interest whatsoever in ‘Letterland’ on the other walls. During reception (he was dual-placed between nursery & school) an EP did the digit-span test. She apologised for starting too low, she said he was up to 7 numbers & walked off as he was bored! Most of my adult student cannot accurately complete a 7-digit string….. By 7 he could tell you the name of any of 75 Yu-Gi-Oh cards from a single piece of information. I think it’s fair to say he would have aced a baseline test such as the one I’ve linked to.

Where would that have got us though? In our case, my son was under an EP from nursery age. He had a very high working memory & a precocious ability to read & write, yet the school placed him in the bottom sets for English – because he had a statement. They completely ignored the test results from an EP, why would they take note of the results gained from a baseline test like the one now suggested? My son, you see, was in a bad school full of bad practices. A new test will not change that only in the new climate, children in a similar situation may never be brought to a LAs attention as being in need of a Statutory Assessment (in our case it was the Speech Therapist that started off the SA process at 3 ½). According to the Deputy Head at the end of Yr 5, my son may never move beyond Level 4 as it is very broad. His caseworker couldn’t understand why he wasn’t already at Level 5, given his EP results (he was tested again a few months before). He now has a lovely clutch of GCSEs and is doing a L3 Btec, gaining mainly distinctions. He moved beyond NC Level 4 just fine & dandy.

Youngest is also a summer baby, some 10+mths younger than his oldest classmates, what leeway will be given to age interpretation? His results would not be on par with his older classmates, he’d have been even further ahead.

Would a baseline test have worked in his favour if he hadn’t been under a statement? That I can only guess & my gut instinct says no. A bad school will do sod all with the results, or worse, deflate them to show how much progress little Johnny has made with their wonderful teaching, such is the perverseness of this new educational landscape we’re entering.

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