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A Primary Assessment Primer

2018-03-13 2334 — Phil Yeeles

This blog post is a transcript of a talk I gave at an NEU (NUT Section) general meeting in Huntingdon, Cambs, on 2018-03-14.

Welcome. I’m going to run through the current state of primary assessment from Reception to Year 6 as diplomatically as possible, and talk a little bit about the problems that it entails at each stage. Finally, I’ll discuss more general issues around the assessment of young children, and what is being done about it.


OK, so let’s start off with Early Years. No doubt most of you have heard the term ‘Baseline’ being thrown around a lot recently, but what exactly does that mean? Essentially, the proposed Baseline tests are a means of giving schools a numerical benchmark against which to measure children’s progress throughout their school careers. They are planned to involve language, literacy and numeracy elements (and possibly “self-regulation”, whatever that actually means), and will be conducted at the start of Reception on children as young as four, beginning with a pilot in 2019 before full deployment in 2020.

This all sounds moderately reasonable until you consider that we have no useful, reliable way of accurately testing four-year-olds in these areas, let alone in such a way as to produce a useful statistic from which to calculate value-added scores. Using this, therefore, as the basis upon which to measure a child’s progress, as well as school effectiveness, is frankly ludicrous. Early Excellence, one of the most popular (or should I say least unpopular?) providers of Baseline testing when it was attempted in 2015-16, has come out as openly sceptical of Baseline testing as demanded by the Government, claiming that such tests will “provide data that is meaningless”. Clearly, an irresponsible initiative from a statistical viewpoint. But this is not even to mention the effect on the children involved, who miss out on teacher contact time right at the start of the school career, at a time that is absolutely formative for the teacher-pupil relationship. It also puts undue pressure on very young children, at an age when most of the rest of Europe haven’t even begun formal schooling, and encourages even further narrowing and formalisation of the Reception curriculum. Finally, and I will move on after this, it also represents a significant workload increase for Reception staff. Absolutely inexcusable, and the fact that it is still being pursued so enthusiastically by our current Government must surely highlight their complete unsuitability to be responsible in any way for something as important as our children’s education.

Key Stage 1

So, after being formally tested in Reception, children are then subjected in Year 1 to the phonics screening check, about which it is claimed that “It will identify pupils who need extra help to improve their decoding skills.” The test consists of 20 real words and 20 “pseudo-words” that children are expected to read aloud to the teacher. If they do not meet the required standard in Year 1, they are then expected to retake in Year 2.

Again, the phonics screening check puts undue pressure on very young children, who are not yet emotionally equipped to deal with such situations, and also represents a significant workload for Year 1 staff. It eats a huge chunk of time which could have been spent teaching, and, really, apart from anything else, what is a “pseudo-word”? Surely, expecting our young children, many of them still inexperienced readers, to try to decode nonsense words and to avoid the temptation to make them into something intelligible is just wrong-footing them.

In addition to the phonics screening retake, Y2 is also the year in which children first encounter SATs. These are high-stakes formal examinations: one in grammar and punctuation, one in spelling, two in reading, one in arithmetic and one in mathematical reasoning. The results are used to measure children’s progress as part of their end-of-year assessment, and are also significant to Ofsted as a means of measuring school achievement. Combined with the Baseline, they form the next step in measuring children’s progress numerically.

Once more, undue pressure, this time not only on the children, but also on the staff - SATs results are generally regarded as top-priority by management due to their impact on Ofsted’s view of a school. This often leads to the narrowing of the curriculum, and, out of desperation, teaching to the test. After all, if your success as a teacher is primarily dependent upon the SATs results, why teach anything else, especially as our pay is performance-related? The marking of the SATs tests is also highly problematic, but I’ll return to that in the next section, when I’ll cover the Year 6 SATs.

Key Stage 2

The big one for KS2 is the Year 6 SATs at the end of primary school. These are results upon which schools are judged by Ofsted, and, as such, are considered to be particularly high priority, often to the exclusion of other areas of the curriculum. The Year 6 SATs consist of a reading paper, a grammar and punctuation test, a spelling test, an arithmetic test and two mathematical reasoning tests, and, in some schools selected for sampling, three science tests. There is also talk of introducing a times tables test. In each subject, a pupil’s “raw score” is scaled to account for fluctuations in difficulty between years, and then compared to a national standard (a “scaled score” of 100), which a child will either have met or have not met. The results of the Year 6 SATs are commonly used to inform setting at the start of secondary school.

The Year 6 SATs in particular exert such a huge amount of pressure on pupils, who are highly aware of the impact of their results on both their own and their school’s future, and the impact on children’s mental health is well-documented, as is the narrowing of the curriculum and teaching-to-the-test that is entailed by such high-stakes examinations. This also has an impact on pupils' mental health, as subjects such as Art gradually get stripped away in favour of more exam preparation. To add to the emotional strain, the “scaled score” system clearly indicates to pupils whether or not they are “good enough”, causing them to label themselves as failures for not meeting a fairly arbitrary criterion. This is especially cruel when you consider the content of the tests, most infamously the grammar and punctuation test, with its focus on obscure linguistics concepts, the teaching of which has not been shown to improve writing skill in the slightest. I encourage you all to visit and try the 2017 grammar and punctuation test for yourselves to see how much of it you can actually do.

Of course, as the stakes are so high for the Year 6 SATs, there is a booming industry of SATs-alike preparatory tests for the rest of KS2. These are unregulated, expensive, cookie-cutter assessment solutions, designed to get children used to taking exams in the SATs style. In many schools, these become the primary means of assessment, once more putting undue pressure on pupils, or they are used to “inform” teacher assessment, or, in other words, double the assessment workload. The sheer monetary cost of such tests is also inexcusable, given the frankly alarming funding situation in UK state schools at the moment.

General Problems

As you’ve heard throughout this talk, a key issue at the heart of the primary assessment debate is pressure. We put our young children through such stressful situations, testing them and grading them and comparing them to a ‘standard’. It’s no wonder that many of them, scoring less highly than they’d perhaps hoped, label themselves internally as failures, which has a lasting impact on their self-perception. How cruel to enable such a thing for no discernible gain, other than to generate some flawed statistics by which to compare and punish schools. However, it suits the ideology of our current Government to ‘measure’ education in this manner, as a simple, quantitative scale of success or failure allows school to compete as business units, trying to outperform each other for potential customers (i.e. parents). Such a ‘market’ model of education is inherently flawed; whatever your views on free-market economics (and I think mine are probably quite clear from the tone of this section), attempting to distil such a complex and nuanced process as education into a few numbers is foolhardy, and the measures being adopted to do so, as we have discussed, are frankly laughable.

What is being done about it?

So what can we do about all of this? Yes, it’s a fairly dire situation, but there is hope. More Than A Score, a coalition of organisations dedicated to fighting Baseline testing, have recently produced Baseline Assessment: Why it doesn’t add up, a paper available on the NEU website that sets out a clear opposition to Baseline assessment, which I strongly recommend you share around as much as you can. Leave the in the staff room, give them to management, build the opposition to Baseline. More Than A Score are also planning a “parent-friendly” event in May, to coincide with a day of action called by the National Childhood Movement, which we will be disseminating the details for as and when they are made available to us. There may also be an event in May or June in conjunction with the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge.

In terms of SATs, we are in a considerably weaker position. Although opposition to the SATs is widespread, there has not been a coherent boycott movement for some years. It will take some time and effort to build such a movement, but talk to the staff involved in your settings, and any sympathetic management, about measures to mitigate the stress of exams, and to ensure against the narrowing of the curriculum. Try to organise a ‘You Can’t Test This’ day, celebrating skills that are not formally assessed. No doubt SATs opposition will come up again at this year’s NUT Section Annual Conference, and again, we will keep you informed of any developments. In the meantime, your best bet is to try to minimise the impact on pupils' wellbeing as much as possible, whilst raising awareness about the issues raised in this talk.


In summary, we are stuck in a system where we exert too much pressure on our children too early in their school careers (and lives!), and it is up to us not only to campaign against it, but also to raise awareness amongst our colleagues and the wider school community. If we can build a movement, we can successfully oppose these initiatives. The campaign against Baseline testing in 2015-16 was successful in stopping it, and only similar mass action will improve the lot of teachers, children and families nationwide.

Further reading

Tags: assessment, primary, mental-health, GERM, speeches, NEU


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