Start of year baseline tests; why bother?


Both my year 11 classes had a test for their first lesson this year, however it wasn’t a baseline test. It was a test on their last topic before the holiday and was done for the benefit of learning (recall & long-term memory) rather than diagnosis (although they always complete an analysis sheet after any test).

I have no issues giving students tests in their first lessons, however there are teachers around the country that are giving students a ‘baseline’ test. I haven’t seen them all however if similar to those I’ve seen they have the following purpose/s:

  • To find out what students know
  • To find out what students can do
  • To fulfil the school’s requirement to do a baseline test, usually to generate a predicted grade/level.

However I question the usefulness of baseline tests like this.

The problems with these tests

1. There is no way they can test ‘everything’. Which skills do you choose to test? Which knowledge? Do you test what you hope they already know or what you plan to teach them? Whatever you do, you won’t get a full view of a child’s capabilities. If you test their skills they may be hindered by their lack of knowledge on the topic and vice verse.

2. Generating a target grade from these without any other data seems risky. First day in class is tense, a bad week, feeling ill, may all contribute to poor performance and consequently an inaccurate starting point.

3. Following ‘life without levels’ many schools are going to a 5 year GCSE. In doing this they are only using GCSE style questions with students. These do not cover all the possible skills that can be developed in subjects. It also is mostly testing them on an unknown GCSE mark scheme. If you spent a couple of lessons teaching them the ‘game’ they may achieve much more.

4. If I have a class of 30 students and they take the baseline test, I have the potential of 30 different starting points. Is it then an expectation to teach 30 different lessons within a lesson? How will you bring them all to them same stage? That seems an impossible task and lends itself to the ridiculous expectation of extreme differentiation.

5. Once the test is done, many just allocate a grade or level. How is that going to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses? The only way to do effectively this would be to record for each student how they performed in each skill, which if a test of several pages, could be an immense job to organise and record. You then have the same issue as above. You will have lots of data, which would take a long time to use in planning.

6. In many cases where schools use setting, these sets are determined before the baseline. If the baseline determines ‘ability’ in a subject which is set, surely they need to be set afterwards.

So what are the alternatives?

Don’t bother. Many schools/subjects don’t bother and students seem to still achieve. Use other standardised data I.e CATS

Stagger the baselines. Give students the tests before they study the knowledge/skill to see what they already know. This might be every term or more frequently.

Separate knowledge and skills testing. This is easier for knowledge. Test students on what you plan to teach them to see what they already know. We give them 30 multiple choice questions at the start/middle/end of every topic. Testing skills without knowledge could be incredibly complex.



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