Published on: 18 Mar 2015

Basic literacy, language and numerical skills will be more formally assessed from September 2015, in order to make sure schools focus on pupils making progress

Baseline: A practitioner’s perspective

Like many early years practitioners, Rhys Penny, Senior EYFS/KS1 Teacher at Cedar Road Primary School in Northampton, had initial misgivings about the proposed introduction of a baseline assessment. Here, he explains how taking part in a trialling process for one of them revealed these assessments could bring unexpected benefits.

Before a child has joined our Reception year at school, we will have visited them at home to chat with them and their parents, seen them in their Nursery setting and spoken to their key workers, and given them a booklet with their new teachers’ pictures in to look at over the summer holidays. When September rolls around, their introduction to full-time education is staggered by age so they can settle in and we have time to get to know them individually.  And, of course, our observations on what they can do start immediately.

In short, we take getting to know our newest recruits very seriously indeed.

So, it might not surprise you to learn I was very sceptical when I first heard of the DfE’s proposal to introduce a baseline check within the first few weeks of school.  The idea is that basic literacy, language and numerical skills of four and five year olds will be more formally assessed from September 2015, in order to make sure schools focus on pupils making progress from a specific starting point.

Doubts and misgivings

Why was I sceptical? Well, firstly – and no doubt like many Reception classes up and down the country – we already had a very thorough system in place for benchmarking our children when they joined us. This included our teachers’ own observations, backed up with photographs, on how children were playing and exploring, how they were actively learning to read and write, and how they could think critically and creatively, amongst other things.

Our daily activities were often planned around the abilities we had observed our pupils needed to develop. Seeing as we had this aspect of their education well-covered, what value would we get out of introducing something else?

Secondly, we go to great lengths to ensure our children feel comfortable, relaxed and safe in their new school environment from day one. After all, it’s an enormous change for such young children to cope with. I had concerns – again shared with many early years practitioners – that a ‘formal’ baseline assessment could be detrimental to this settling in process.

Thirdly, it sounded likely that this type of assessment would require significant teacher time – meaning time away from the classroom environment. When so many of us become teachers because we love spending time with the children;duties that take us away from them aren’t often relished.

It’s all in the doing

These reservations meant I jumped at the chance when I was invited to take part  in a pilot for one of the new baseline assessments. I was very keen to have the chance to be in it from Ground Zero, and evaluate the pros and cons for myself. I also felt it was a good opportunity to see how we might be able to incorporate such an assessment into our routines before it is officially introduced.

I feel very strongly that how you carry out an assessment is of crucial importance, especially for such young children. There is no need for them to be aware that an assessment is taking place. That said, I’ve been rumbled before when taking pictures of the children carrying out a specific activity for their progress folders! However, they just turned and smiled at the camera, proud of their work, and this is the kind of atmosphere I wanted to continue – a positive experience of doing something fun for the child, while their teachers monitor their progress.

Tablet-to-tablet

It was therefore a pleasant surprise that one of the most distinguishing features of GL Assessment’s Baseline assessment is its format. Unlike any other assessment I’ve seen, it’s carried out on two tablets – one for the teacher and one for the child. 

This is a simple yet ingenious approach. Of course, tablets are beginning to be more widely used in schools now, but many younger children still associate them with playing games. Using a tablet-to-tablet format gives the children the impression of something fun and exciting – in other words, in-line with the other types of activities we do here.

It all helps to engage the children. As part of the pilot, we tested 22 out of our 60-strong cohort, but all the children were intrigued and kept asking, “When do I get to do that? Can I have a go?” 

While it was wonderful that everyone wanted to take part, some were upset if they weren’t on the list to be trialled. I had to promise to do something with them using tablets another time. You just don’t get that kind of response with a paper test!

Making progress

To tally with the information the DfE are interested in, Baseline is broken down into three sections; language and communication, phoneme awareness and mathematics. The former asks a range of questions on grammar, vocabulary and understanding, with two scales assessing expression and comprehension. For example, the screen might show a picture of a child washing themselves in a sink while the audio asks ‘Why do we wash our body?’

To test phoneme awareness, an initial or final sound is removed from either a word or pseudo-word, for example, ‘Say Parrot without the P’ or ‘Say seesaw without the saw’. Then the maths part deals with counting, simple calculations and language for maths, asking the children, for example, to tap five big fish on the tablet.

As the assessment continues, the teacher simply records the child’s answers online without needing to spend time writing up results.

I found the breadth of topics covered to be comprehensive. Many we already did, although we didn’t have an activity on positional language (eg in front of/behind or first place/second place) and this was very useful. In fact, some children really surprised me with what they knew.

Using technology, there’s no danger of any paperwork going missing or pages getting out of order. It’s one of the clearest advantages – by working from tablet to tablet and not spending time scribbling down observations, you can watch a child’s ‘thinking head’. This means you are able to focus totally on that individual child which I think is so important.

On a trial basis

We found that our trial ran smoothly, with help just a phone call away. Everything was very self-explanatory. In truth, one of the hardest things in a busy school of 420 pupils was timetabling a quiet space where we could carry out the assessments!

The children loved holding their own tablet and the majority start school knowing how to use one. This makes the assessments easy for me to administer and easy for the children to do – their input is essential.

The children see simple and colourful illustrations and hear a friendly voice from the tablet asking questions. To respond to questions, they either touch the screen or answer out loud. Meanwhile, a member of staff is holding the other tablet and is in full control of how quickly the test progresses based on a child’s abilities.

An objective quality

As you would expect in a carefully standardised test, each child gets exactly the same question, exactly the same way. It’s the perfect objective complement to teacher judgment. Sometimes a child couldn’t give an answer, so I stepped in to explain it to them but would note they were incorrect.

Other times, children would ask me if they had got things right or wrong. To begin with, I just told them we would talk about it later but some are so insistent that I decided to use it as a teaching point and discuss it with them.

If there was anything that repeatedly came up as difficult once all the children had completed each section, we used that in the classroom.  For example, we discovered that many found the sequencing of the day difficult, so updating our visual timetable became a priority.  As a result, children can now move from activity to activity more quickly and easily. 

Taking your Time

As I’ve mentioned, I had concerns that any assessment of this kind would eat into teachers’ time with the children – after all, making a baseline judgement for each child has always been very time-consuming. It was something that the developers were aware of as being a potential pitfall, and so Baseline is designed to be as quick as possible. It can be split into three sessions, which can be carried out on different days if necessary. The assessment takes around 25 minutes in all. Because everything is recorded online, children can work with different members of staff without comprising accuracy or the consistency of results.

In practice, the assessments do, of course, take you out of the classroom, which is one of the reasons why the information you glean has to be worthwhile.

However, as you get used to how it works, the process feels significantly speedier.  In fact, it’s actually something of a double-edged sword; although I don’t want to spend time away from the classroom, every teacher is aware that it is easy for some children to get ‘lost’ in a busy, buzzy class of 30. 

Having additional one-to-one time can help children feel more confident in talking to their teachers, and help us get to know them as individuals. It has been one of the more unexpected side effects of taking part in this pilot; a reminder to us of just how important it is to work on a one-to-one basis sometimes and not just to do group work.

What we found

There are a number of reports generated by the assessment – obviously the score required for the DfE to establish a benchmark but also group and cluster reports that could be useful for local authorities. An individual student report is also generated, which includes a bullet-point summary with suggestions on how you might interpret those scores, and what you might do in the classroom to help progress that child. You are also able to see where a child sits in their cohort, nationally or for their age with standardised age scores particularly useful for summer born youngsters.

Something I think that will be of real benefit to us is the option to reassess pupils at the end of academic year. This will help us demonstrate progress and potentially save time in future as we found it tallied well with our curriculum – usually you wonder how you will marry the two together.

Getting it right

What I liked about being part of the pilot was that our feedback was listened to and changes were made, which was very important. After all, we’re the ones in the classroom every day and we know how we can best deliver this assessment to the children. For example, when I flagged up that the recorded voice didn’t pronounce sounds as pure phonics, it was soon re-recorded and amended.

The biggest thing for me was seeing the children enjoyed the assessment and wanted to do it. I suppose the bottom line is that now the DfE wants us to do a baseline assessment, it’s crucial to choose one that will give great quality information teachers can use on a daily basis in the classroom. Nothing will replace experienced teacher observations, but getting the right assessment for your setting will complement these observations and let you get to know your pupils better, quicker.

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