Is testing 4-year-olds harmful or helpful? - RSA

Is testing four-year-olds harmful or helpful? Reflections on Reception Baseline Assessments pilots


  • Picture of Elinor Lobley
    Elinor Lobley
    Former Intern - Creative Learning and Development
  • Education
  • Curriculum
  • Schools
  • Teaching

This year has seen a pilot across the country of a new test for four-year old children when they first start school.

The idea of testing children in Reception has unsurprisingly caused a lot of debate. Teachers, parents, and academics have raised concerns about the impact of testing on young children, the reliability of the data, and how the results will be used.

The RSA Education team have been debating the pros and cons of Reception Baseline Assessments.

What is the Reception Baseline Assessment?

The Reception Baseline Assessment is a 20-minute test given to children in their first 6 weeks of school.

It was first developed by the National Foundation for Educational Research, as part of a government plan to launch a baseline assessment schools in 2020. In September 2019, a voluntary pilot took place. Over 9,600 of the about 21,000 primary schools in the country took part. 

The test is designed to measure children’s level of language, communication and literacy, and numeracy. Children take part in activities and give their answers verbally, by pointing, or by rearranging objects (for example, putting picture cards in the right order).

The assessment uses ‘routing’ – the next questions depends on if children got the last question right. The idea of routing is to reduce the amount of times children are presented with a question they can’t answer correctly.

How will the results be used?

A teacher or teaching assistant record the pupil’s responses on an online scoring system. Results are recorded as just a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ if they completed each activity correctly.  

The school doesn’t keep all the results. They get a written summary of the child’s level. But the scores themselves are held centrally. Why? The scores of this baseline assessment will be compared with children’s scores from the end of primary school in Year 6 (known as Key Stage 2).

The idea is to measure the progress the child has made at primary school and therefore how well the primary school is doing.  

There are no plans to release the results separately, so we will only see the first data from 2020 when those children finish Key Stage 2 in 2027.

Is the Reception Baseline Assessment a good idea? 

The idea of testing a child in their first few weeks of primary school was bound to evoke strong reactions.

Some people might say this isn’t that different than what many primary schools already do. Trying to understand the range of abilities in your classroom to design lessons is a necessary part of teaching, and the assessment is just a standardised way of doing this.

On the other hand, critics argue that the way most primaries do this is less intrusive and makes use of the teacher’s professional judgement across the first few weeks, rather than a one-off binary test. The way that answers are recorded as yes/no, with no space for comments, doesn’t make use of the teacher’s skills.

People are worried that the way a child behaves in this 20 minutes could assign them a label for the rest of their school career.

In a previous trial of a baseline assessment by the Department for Education, a longer-term observational assessment was used. But this approach was dropped due to the difficulty in comparing classroom observations in Reception with test scores later on.

But despite this need for easy comparisons, is age four just too early for assessments? It could be if it risks reducing time for play. A growing evidence base suggests that opportunities for play are valuable for the development of children’s linguistic and cognitive abilities, as well as beneficial for wellbeing and self-regulation.

The Department for Education says that the results of this assessment won’t be used to judge nurseries, pre-schools, and other early year’s provision. But there could still be a ‘trickle-down’ effect if time is used to prepare for the test, which means less time to develop through play.

Issues with using the Reception Baseline Assessment data

If these results are going to be used as measure of a school’s ability to promote progress, how will the data account for problems such as:

  • Lots of children will move schools between Reception and the end of Year 6. Who is assigned responsibility for their progress?
  • The 7 years between the test and the results is longer than most headteachers stay in one primary school. Without data points in-between, it will be hard to judge the effect of changes in leadership.
  • The test is conducted in English and does not take into account children with English as an Additional Language (EAL). This could misrepresent their abilities or progress.

There are also some issues specific to testing such young children:

  • In a small group (common in most primary schools) the number of summer or autumn babies can skew scores. In children of this age, a few months can make a big developmental difference.
  • Given the age of the children, small things like time of day, their mood, hunger, and how comfortable they feel in the environment, will have a bigger impact on how they do than among older students.
  • The settling-in period for primary school is very different for different children.

The Reception Baseline Assessment could help us close the information gap on the earliest years of school

Nevertheless, however many issues this test raises, there is a need to have more information about the earliest stages of schooling.

A recent report by FFT Education Datalab found that for the most disadvantaged students the first few years at school had the largest impact on opening up an attainment gap between them and their peers. These gaps continue all the way to GCSEs in year 10 & 11.

Analysis of local data found that certain areas are better at promoting progress for this group during different stages of education. This is where the over £10m being spent on the Reception Baseline Assessment could help. If criticisms of the reliability of the data are tackled, the test could be used positively to highlight areas of good practice which could lead in how to improve these early attainment gaps.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has come out in favour of the Reception Baseline Assessment. They argue that a measure of progress is a more accurate reflection of a primary school’s effectiveness than just measuring one test. This makes sense – the similar ‘Progress 8 measure’ has been used to measure secondary school’s impact.

Key questions remain – and must be taken seriously

Balancing the individual impact of data collection with the value of the results is an issue encountered frequently in social sciences. This is key a question that must be carefully examined when there could be impact at such a key developmental stage.

The discussion in the RSA Education team raised several questions. These need to be taken seriously if this test is implemented. 

For example, the British Education Research Association’s expert panel raised issues around the accuracy of the data and how it can be used to support children’s learning, stating that these tests “cannot be accurate or fair”. While further material has been released on implementing the assessment, arguably the key concerns have not been addressed. Furthermore, the answer to a parliamentary question on the same lines was supportive of the RBA but reasonably low on details.

Recent results paint a gloomy view on the attainment gap closing anytime soon. Analysis by the Fair Education Alliance suggests continuing at the current rate will mean it closes in the year 2581. There is a vital need for new evidence and measures to help speed this up.

With an election around the corner, the government will need to prove that these tests are the most effective use of money and resources to support young learners - not just another, potentially inaccurate, way to put pressure on schools.

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