Children should be tested on English and maths at the age of seven to ensure they are mastering the basics, Sir Michael Wilshaw said today.
The Ofsted chief inspector called on government to consider bringing back formal national tests at the end of infant school amid suggestions that teachers' assessments of pupils' performance is not always up to scratch.
In his second annual report, Sir Michael also announced that for the first time, schools with behaviour problems will face unannounced inspections in a bid to crack down on disruption in the classroom.
England's schools are suffering from a culture of "casual acceptance" of misbehaviour and lessons should not be undermined by "background chatter, inattention and horseplay," he suggested.
The report concludes that the education system is gradually improving, with almost eight out of 10 schools now rated as good or better.
But nearly a quarter of a million pupils are still languishing in failing schools, and a further 1.5 million are being taught in schools that require improvement.
There are three factors hindering progress, Ofsted suggested, too much mediocre teaching and weak leadership, regional differences in the quality of education and the underachievement of poor children, especially white youngsters.
Inspectors found that a lot of poor teaching found in primary schools was in the younger age groups, the report said, a time when pupils need the best teaching not the weakest.
Under the current system, pupils' performance in English and maths at the age of seven is assessed by their teachers.
But Ofsted inspectors found "worrying inconsistencies" in teachers' assessments. In infants schools, children are more likely to be assessed as reaching or exceeding the standard expected of their age group than in all-through primary schools, it concluded, and uneven moderation of pupils' work can lead to "poor quality and unreliable assessment".
Sir Michael said that it is for these reasons that he was urging government to consider a return to external testing after two years of formal schooling.
The call is likely to spark concerns among some sections of the education community who have previously suggested that children are tested too much.
Currently, pupils sit national curriculum or Sats tests in reading and maths at age 11, as well as one on spelling, punctuation and grammar. Writing skills are assessed by teachers. A reading check has also been brought in for six-year-olds.
Pupils previously sat externally marked tests at the age of seven, but it is understood that this system was phased out from 2004.
The annual report also suggested that low-level disruption in lessons and poor attitudes to education are stopping pupils from learning, and preventing the nation from moving up international league tables.
This disruption and inattention has been tolerated for too long, Sir Michael said, announcing that from January, inspectors will make no notice visits to schools where there are concerns about behaviour.
Speaking during a visit to St Paul's Way Trust School in Tower Hamlets, east London, Sir Michael said: "We need to talk a lot more about the culture in our schools and the expectations we should have of our children.
"Too many of our schools suffer from poor behaviour and high levels of disruptive behaviour."
The chief inspector today said that classrooms need to be orderly places.
"Around 700,000 pupils attend schools where behaviour needs to improve. Unless this changes, teachers will struggle to create an environment in which all children learn well."
Today's major report also found that:
:: Poor white children - the largest proportion of children eligible for free school meals, a key measure of poverty - are lagging far behind their classmates. Since 2007, their attainment has improved at a slower rate than other ethnic groups.
:: There are only three local authorities where fewer than 60% of primary-age pupils attend a school rated good or better, compared to 23 last year.
:: In 13 local authorities less than half of secondary-age pupils attend a good or outstanding school.
:: Teaching was rated good or outstanding in 65% of schools, compared to 62% last year.
:: But there were more maths and English lessons judged to be less than good by inspectors than many other subjects.
In a speech as the report was published, Sir Michael said: "Looking at the evidence across all sectors, there are unmistakeable signs that England's education system is gradually improving."
"If our destination is the high peaks of a world class education system and the economics benefits that follow, we are now in the foothills," he added.