I recently attended a campaign promotion on alternatives to high stakes testing hosted by Nancy Stewart of TACTYC (Association for Professional Development in Early Years). It was in response to the UK government’s proposed “base line” testing regime for early years and primary education. Under the proposal all school starters (aged 4) will be given a base-line assessment in their first few weeks of formal education. This twenty minute exam is envisioned to be used as a measure of attainment at all subsequent educational transitions. It is supposed to provide quantifiable data by being a statistically objective measure, rather than the “subjective” teacher observation of skills and attainment.
However, Katherine Bailey of CEM (Centre for Evaluation & Monitoring) has stated that the testing regime would be “verging on immoral.” This is two-fold. First of all it is pointless. Children at this age are not “test savvy,” and it does not take factors such as staff turn-over and school quality into the equation. More importantly it is potentially damaging. It risks labeling of students at the outset of their school journey, and may well lead even more schools to “teach to the test” to make up for “lost ground.” It may make early years education even more formal, and narrow. The proposal also does not account for individual factors such as Special Educational Needs, English as an Additional Language (the test must be given in English), and summer births (which allows up to eleven month range in “base line” ages). Poverty and other social disadvantage is also not considered in the measure.
While the proposal states that the results will be “cohort-ed” rather than individual, there remains a provision for schools to be offered a “narrative summary” of the base-line results which show “strengths and weaknesses” which can be used for setting. These despite the best of intentions may well still result in “labeling.”
If this is compared to some of the current practices, such as synthetic phonics, we find that summer born students are twice as likely to fail phonics tests, and that even the Fisher Family Trust now accepts that “there is little connection” between outcomes and pupil progress at various key stages. In reflecting on this, the Gove era “reforms” have led to half of students entering secondary being marked as “failing” in at least one assessment measure. This has led to even more teaching to the test.
Do we need to complicate this further with yet another level of ever earlier testing? I am not suggesting that testing has no value in education. What I am saying is it needs to be evidence based, and proportional. It need not be testing for testing sake, nor merely for government ministers to have a sound bite.
Many other school authorities around the world are moving away from “high stakes” testing. Australia is moving to holistic projects, and Malaysia has cut back on testing. There are testing alternatives. Children are more than a number. Raw data does not give a true feeling of “who is the child.” Data will never give a full picture of a child’s interests and abilities. It is time we wake up to this.