CANBERRA, Jan 29 - Education Minister Simon Birmingham has appointed a five-person panel to develop the new assessments for Year 1 students.

They'll report back to the nation's education ministers in the middle of 2017.

Senator Birmingham has been pushing for the skills tests after several studies, including international comparisons, found Australian children were falling behind.

Performance is at best plateauing and the gap between the brightest students and those struggling is growing.

"These skills checks are not expected to be a confronting test but rather a light touch assessment that ensures teachers, parents and schools know at the earliest possible stage if children aren't picking up reading or counting skills as quickly as they should, enabling them to intervene rapidly," Senator Birmingham said.

He says the nation can't afford to wait any longer to act on turning around declining education results.

The Year 1 tests are likely to be based on assessments used in England that involve children verbally identifying letters and sounds in real and made up words, simple counting, recognising numbers, naming shapes and demonstrating basic measurement knowledge.

The panel will also consider the best way to implement the tests, including a trial and when and how often they should be conducted.

The teachers union has labelled the tests a distraction from school funding issues.

Australian Education Union president Correna Haythorpe doubts the tests will help lift literacy and numeracy standards without schools also getting resources to help students identified as struggling.

Panel designing Year 1 skills check

* Mandy Nayton - chief executive of Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation

* Pamela Snow - head of the La Trobe Rural Health School, registered psychologist, having qualified originally in speech pathology

* Jennifer Buckingham - education research fellow at Centre for Independent Studies

* Steven Capp - principal, Bentleigh West Primary School, Victoria

* Geoff Prince - director of Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute

* Allason McNamara - maths teacher and president of Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers