There’s been renewed student assessment controversy this week, surrounding the age at which pupils are formally assessed in the classroom. With the large-scale baseline assessment pilot due to begin in 2019, then implemented in 2020, The National Union of Teachers has called for a campaign against reception-level literacy and numeracy tests. The NUT suggests that learning through play and other formative assessment methods are far more useful to a child’s development than formal assessment.
The Department for Education claims, meanwhile, that baseline testing can be a good predictor of a child’s future attainment, therefore holding schools more formally accountable for deviations from these predictions.
So, could such early formal assessment damage a child’s development, or is it an important benchmarking and accountability exercise for schools? What’s more, are there effective methods of summative assessment that could be used instead?
Why are pupils assessed summatively?
There are a number of testing exercises that fall under the formal assessment umbrella; nationwide tests like SATs, GCSEs and A-Levels, regional benchmarking, and everyday classroom tests. Each test provides valuable data that can formulate a particular school’s strategy or guide the overall national curriculum.
Importantly, formal testing indicates benchmark standards to be aimed for, provides information about a pupil’s subject knowledge and overall acquired skills. It then enables these standards to be monitored across the whole country, while rewards and penalties also push pupils to take their work more seriously.
Could early formative assessment be damaging?
Formative assessment generally evaluates the level of student learning and academic achievement at the end of a term, year or semester; usually completed under controlled conditions and attributed to a pupil’s academic record.
The proposed baseline assessment for four-year olds will follow a similar format, lasting around 20 minutes, and will involve 99% of all pupils.
According to those who oppose the 2019 baseline assessment pilot, the exercise will not only be expensive in terms of the necessary resources across the country, but could also damaging to a child’s future motivation.
“Four-year-olds, in the vital settling in period, will be answering literacy and maths questions. This is a time when children should be building their confidence, gaining trust with their teachers and support staff.” Katharine Lindenberg, NUT delegate from Waltham Forest, London
There’s evidence to support the idea that official testing can negatively impact a child’s self perception; after the introduction of the National Curriculum tests in England, low-achieving pupils had lower self-esteem than higher-achieving pupils, according to the University College London. Beforehand there was no correlation between self-esteem and achievement.
The Department for Education, meanwhile, has suggested that it is the school’s responsibility to administer the baseline tests in a non-stressful way for young pupils. And if schools are more accountable for keeping a child on his or her projected attainment path, there will be more impetus for instilling differentiated learning methods.
How does formal assessment differ to informal?
Unlike summative assessment, informal formative assessment can be more impromptu. It will often be seamlessly woven into learning, and is non-disruptive to classroom time. The information gathered is rarely marked or graded, meaning it is less pressured for pupils.
The most important aspect of formative assessment, however, is the ability it gives educators to tailor and adapt their teaching methods for individual pupils before they are formally assessed. School leaders use this information to identify areas of strength and weakness across the institution, and to develop strategies for improvement.
It could, therefore, be more valuable to formatively assess four-year old pupils, and ascertain their potential strengths and weaknesses, rather than imposing formal testing conditions at such a young age.
Types of early formative assessment
For very young pupils, formative assessment could take the form of fun activities that are less taxing than standardised testing. Tasks like quizzes, polls and diagram drawing can encourage young pupils to think more critically, and provide key insights on how well a child grasps a specific subject or concept.
Interactive technology can help provide a seamless and efficient tool for teachers to formatively assess their youngest pupils. Quizzes or polls conducted over front-of-class edtech like Promethean’s ActivPanel provides a repository for storing and accessing assessment data, so it provides a similar function to summative assessment data.
Ultimately, effective assessment procedures are all about balance. Formal assessment forms an integral part of the curriculum, it paves the way for improved education across the country, and ensures all schools are accountable for their pupils’ ongoing success beyond school.
This, meanwhile, should be interspersed with informal assessment that instructs the path of learning as it unfolds, and helps educators teach pupils in the most effective way for their needs. Whether the baseline testing is introduced in 2020 remains to be seen, but there are clear benefits and drawbacks to either outcome.