Guest Post: Base-line tests for 4 year olds: a dangerous chimera?

Professor Colin Richards, a former senior HMI, argues against the testing of 4 year olds and does not believe that a valid and reliable measure of progress from age 4 to age 11 is possible.

Justine Greening is consulting on the ‘teacher-mediated’ testing of young children soon after they enter primary school at the age of four . English children are already tested far more than children in most other countries and if our four year olds are tested, they will be amongst the very youngest children in the world to undergo a formal assessment of their abilities and achievements. Some people think this testing is long overdue; many others think that it not only a waste of time but it is very damaging to young children’s confidence at a time when they are having to adjust to new surroundings and new ways of learning. Is the testing then a welcome development or a harmful activity?

The government and even some professional associations believe that “teacher-mediated” testing is necessary to find out where children are at the beginning of their formal education so that their progress can then be mapped out and eventually assessed at age eleven and later at age sixteen. The tests are supposed to measure not only the children’s progress but also how good the schools are that they attend. It all sounds very sensible and straightforward but is it?

Do we have the know-how to devise tests for children at such a young age? Many of us in education don’t think we do. The recent experience of finding that three proposed base-lined schemes were incompatible reinforces that view. It has taken a long time to develop tests for eleven-year-olds and yet these are far from perfect, as many parents will know from the experience of their own children.

Part of the problem lies with the children themselves!! They learn in very different ways and at different rates so developing tests that are fair to all is difficult, perhaps impossible. Also at that age children are particularly volatile; not only do they find it difficult to sit still (!) but they change from day to day, almost minute to minute at times. That volatility is one of the delights of being four! How can a test be reliable (let alone valid) given that inevitable changeability?

Children come to school with a wide range of achievements but any tests can only look at a fraction of these. Many of the most important such as self-confidence, wanting to learn, willingness to cooperate with others and a degree of personal independence cannot be measured or tested at all. Early literacy and numeracy are important, of course, but not all-important and not as important as emotional security which is the foundation of all school learning.

Which brings us to the effects of the tests on the children themselves. They may not fully realise the importance of the tests but they will soon pick up signals if their parents or teachers are anxious about them, as many will be. The result will be many worried children whose worry will get in the way of their early learning and will threaten their enjoyment of the challenge of a new school. Would you like to take a series of tests just weeks into a new job and tests that could well label you “good”,”OK” or “poor”? Presumably not, but that’s how many children will feel just weeks into school.

Lastly the government assumes that children’s performance at five can be compared meaningfully with their performance six years later. But how reasonable is that ? Not only are the children taking the test different people but the tests themselves are different and their results are not comparable.

All this leads me, and many other teachers, to believe that the tests are likely to be harmful. Of course, we do believe that children’s achievements on entry to school need to be recognised and built upon but not through tests conducted so early in their school lives. We think that class teachers are best placed to find out where young children are and what they need to learn next on the basis of observing and working closely with them during their first few months in school. Such assessments are likely to be much more sensitive to individual children’s needs than any tests provided by the government . But they can’t be used to “measure” children’s progress. It’s high time we abandoned that chimera!

Professor Colin Richards can be contacted through @colinsparkbridg

Article originally posted on the TES.

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  1. Victoria Jaquiss

    Harmful, dangerous, reckless, pointless, uneducational, sickening, waste of money, but hey we are wrecking the mental heath and well-being of our 10 and 11 yr-olds, forcing our teenagers to drop subjects that they had a talent for, driving experienced, once enthusiastic and talented teachers out of their profession, why not go the whole hog and wreck their lives at the very beginning of their school careers.

  2. Well said, Colin. Powerfully put. And, as Victoria says harmful, dangerous, reckless, pointless, uneducational, sickening, and a waste of money.

    The trouble is that too many politicians see schooling as an industry. Measure the input and the outputs and the difference represents the profit. But young children are not raw materials nor are school leavers the manufactured product!

  3. Chris

    I agree, our children’s and our teachers’ mental health suffers at the hands of these tests. We already do baseline assessments using the development matters bands and through sensitive play based observation, as well as talking to parents and taking into account children’s characteristics of effective learning as well as their levels of well being (oh, yes sounds exactly like ExBa). These sensitive assessments allow us to plan effectively and if you want to see progress come and visit or talk to parents, they’ll tell you if we’re making a difference. It would be really good if the gov trusted teachers I believe the majority of schools went with ExBa!

  4. Janine

    What ever happened to letting 4 year olds be children, achieving at their individual level, not comparing them and testing them left right and Center, most of Europe doesn’t start school until age 7 and we are testing our babies which a lot of 4 year old still are. Let them be little!!!

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