Part 2: Early years assessment is not reliable or valid and thus not helpful

This is the second post on early years assessment. The first is here

Imagine the government decided they wanted children to be taught to be more loving. Perhaps the powers that be could decide to make teaching how to love statutory and tell teachers they should measure each child’s growing capacity to love.

Typical scene in the EYFS classroom – a teacher recording observational assessment. 

There would be serious problems with trying to teach and assess this behaviour:

Definition: What is love? Does the word actually mean the same thing in different contexts? When I talk about ‘loving history’ am I describing the same thing (or ‘construct’) as when I ‘love my child’.

Transfer:  Is ‘love’ something that universalises between contexts? For example if you get better at loving your sibling will that transfer to a love of friends, or school or learning geography?

Teaching: Do we know how to teach people to love in schools? Are we even certain it’s possible to teach it?

Progress: How does one get better at loving? Is progress linear? Might it just develop naturally?

Assessment: If ‘loving skills’ actually exist can they be effectively measured?





Loving – a universalising trait that can be taught?

The assumption that we can teach children to ‘love’ in one context and they’ll exercise ‘love’ in another might seem outlandish but, as I will explain, the writers of early years assessment fell into just such an error in the Early Years Foundation stage framework and assessment profile.

In my last post I explained how the priority on assessment in authentic environments has been at the cost of reliability and has meant valid conclusions cannot be drawn from Early Years Foundation Stage Profile assessment data. There are, however, other problems with assessment in the early years…

Problems of ‘validity’ and ‘construct validity’

Construct validity: is the degree to which a test measures what it claims, or purports, to be measuring.

 Validity: When inferences can be drawn from an assessment about what students can do in other situations, at other times and in other contexts.

If we think we are measuring ‘love’ but it doesn’t really exist as a single skill that can be developed then our assessment is not valid. The inferences we draw from that assessment about student behaviour would also be invalid.

Let’s relate this to the EYFS assessment profile.

Problems with the EYFS Profile ‘characteristics of effective learning’

The EYFS Profile Guide requires practitioners to comment a child’s skills and abilities in relation to 3 ‘constructs’ labelled as ‘characteristics of effective learning’:

We can take one of these characteristics of effective learning to illustrate a serious problem of validity of the assessment. While a child might well demonstrate creativity and critical thinking (the third characteristic listed) it is now well established that such behaviours are NOT skills or abilities that can be learnt in one context and transferred to another entirely different context- they don’t universalise any more than ‘loving’. In fact the capacity to be creative or think critically is dependent on specific knowledge of the issue in question. Many children can think very critically about football but that apparent behaviour evaporates when faced with some maths.  You’ll think critically in maths because you know a lot about solving similar maths problems and this capacity won’t make you think any more critically when solving something different like a word puzzle or a detective mystery.

Creating and thinking critically are NOT skills or abilities that can be learnt in one context and then applied to another

Creating and thinking critically are not ‘constructs’ which can be taught and assessed in isolation. Therefore there is no valid general inference about these behaviours, which could be described as a ‘characteristic of learning’, observed and reported. If you wish a child to display critical thinking you should teach them lots of relevant knowledge about the specific material you would like them to think critically about.

In fact, what is known about traits such as critical thinking suggests that they are ‘biologically primary’ and don’t even need to be learned [see an accessible explanation here].

Moving on to another characteristic of effective learning: active learning or motivation. This presupposes that ‘motivation’ is also a universalising trait as well as that we are confident that we know how to inculcate it. In fact, as with critical thinking, it is perfectly possible to be involved and willing to concentrate in some activities (computer games) but not others (writing).

There has been high profile research on motivation, particularly Dweck’s work on growth mindset and Angela Duckworth’s on Grit. Angela Duckworth, has created a test that she argues demonstrates that adult subjects possess a universalising trait which she calls ‘Grit’. But even this world expert concedes that we do not know how to teach Grit and rejects her Grit scale being used for high stakes tests. Regarding Growth Mindset, serious doubts have been raised about failures to replicate Dweck’s research findings and studies with statistically insignificant results that have been used to support Growth Mindset.

Despite serious questions around the teaching of motivation, the EYFS Profile ‘characteristics of learning’ presume this is a trait that can be inculcated in pre-schoolers and without solid research evidence it is simply presumed it can be reliably assessed.

For the final characteristic of effective learning, playing and learning. Of course children learn when playing. This does not mean the behaviours to be assessed under this heading (‘finding out and exploring’, ‘using what they know in play’ or ‘being willing to have a go’) are any more universalising as traits or less dependent on context than the other characteristics discussed. It cannot just be presumed that they are.

Problems with the ‘Early Learning Goals’

 At the end of reception each child’s level of development is assessed against the 17 EYFS Profile ‘Early Learning Goals. In my previous post I discussed the problems with the reliability of this assessment. We also see the problem of construct validity in many of the assumptions within the Early Learning Goals. Some goals are clearly not constructs in their own right and others may well not be and serious questions need to be asked about whether they are universalising traits or actually context dependent behaviours.

For example, ELG 2 is ‘understanding’. Understanding is not a generic skill. It is dependent on domain specific knowledge. True, a child does need to know the meaning of the words ‘how’ and ‘why’ which are highlighted in the assessment but while understanding is a goal of education it can’t be assessed generically as you have to understand something and this does not mean you will understand something else. The same is true for ‘being imaginative’ ELG17.

An example of evidence of ELG 2, understanding, in the EYFS profile exemplification materials.

Are ELG1 ‘listening and attention’ or ELG 16 ‘exploring and using media materials’ actually universalising constructs? I rarely see qualitative and observational early years research that even questions whether these early learning goals are universalising traits, let alone looks seriously at whether they can be assessed. This is despite decades of research in cognitive psychology leading to a settled consensus which challenges many of the unquestioned constructs which underpin EYFS assessment.

It is well known that traits such as understanding, creativity, critical thinking don’t universalise. Why, in early years education, are these bogus forms of assessment not only used uncritically but allowed to dominate the precious time when vulnerable children could be benefiting from valuable teacher attention?

n.b. I have deliberately limited my discussion to a critique using general principles of assessment rather than arguments that would need to based on experience or practice.

14 thoughts on “Part 2: Early years assessment is not reliable or valid and thus not helpful

  1. I’m sure you know the answer to your last question–actual tests would reveal exactly how little children have learned. The EYFS is ideological, and it reflects its proponents’ hostility to our culture, which is rooted in values they abhor. This is seldom expressed outright, but Basil Bernstein let the mask slip:

    “We can also see that the pre-school/infant school movement from one point of view is a progressive, revolutionary, colonizing movement in its relationships to parents, and its relationships to educational levels above itself. It is antagonistic for different reasons to middle-class and working-class families, for both create a deformation of the child. It is antagonistic to educational levels above itself, because of its fundamental opposition to their concepts of learning and social relationships. We can note here that as a result the child is abstracted from his family and his future educational contexts,”

    Bernstein wrote this in 1973, and I doubt that many of our current advocates of the EYFS are so consciously and blatantly political. For all that early years teachers are wrapped in a romantic, cotton-wool vision of childhood, many are just as hostile to teaching a traditional academic curriculum as Bernstein was. Sadly, this attitude seeps upward in primary schools–recently, the TES reported that only 14% of primary school heads are in favour of the check on automatic recall of number bonds in Yr 6.

    1. Hello again Tom – you still haven’t explained your ‘pervy’ quote from the previous blog. Would you like to take the opportunity now to do so?

      1. Jan–several replies failed to clear up your total misunderstanding of Article 12, so I see no point in trying to explain anything else to you.

      2. It was your use of the word ‘pervy’ to describe child observation that promoted a lot of interest. Out of respect for EarlyYears practitioners who do this everyday perhaps you should clarify exactly what you meant by that.

      3. Perhaps Tom you are unaware of the difference between misunderstanding something and disagreeing with it. If you like I could explain the complex difference between them to you.

      4. Seeing as how it obviously has nettled you grievously, I suppose I could spare a moment to give an example of why I find attempts at manipulating children’s play ‘pervy’. This goes back 40 years, when I was asked to pick up a woman was working at a children’s playgroup in Archway and give her a lift back to Brum, where I lived. When I got there, the playgroup supervisors got the kids together and suggested that they write their own play and put it on, and the response was enthusiastic. They volunteered all kinds of suggestions, mostly involving princesses, imaginary animals and fairy tales. This was not quite what the organisers had in mind–gradually, they tried to get them interested in protesting the proposed Archway bypass. As soon as this was apparent, the kids melted away and resumed messing about as kids will do.

        Now I suppose if the EYFS and the CWDC had existed back then, these Trots wouldn’t have been quite so ham-handed in their ‘nudging’, and I wouldn’t have left this redundant church chuckling. But I still believe that teachers should be honest and straightforward with their pupils. Do you have a problem with this?

  2. Hi Heather,
    Was just wondering if you are still writing for your blog?
    I am always keen to read about your views, ideas and thoughts and have noticed that you haven’t been around recently 😅
    Do continue to write if you can. I would be looking forward to it if you do.

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