Early Learning Assessment: A Force For Good When Used Responsibly

In expanding preschool programs, states and localities can take advantage of the increasing evidence base on effective, equitable assessment.
Blog Post
A preschool student stacks blocks.
Photo by cottonbro studio
Nov. 13, 2023

My 3-year-old often surprises me with what he understands. He recently drew a picture of a dinosaur with circles around it, and when I asked what those circles were, he said, “meteors, of course.” I hadn’t realized he knew or understood the word meteor. Had I not provided markers and paper, and asked about those specific parts of the drawing, I might not have found out. Figuring out what young children know and can do is challenging, and is both an art and a science. Knowing this information is key to helping children learn and grow. Enter assessment.

Assessment is a central part of high-quality early childhood education (ECE). Susan Friedman, Senior Director of Publishing & Content Development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) notes the ways in which educators use assessment in combination with observation and documentation to support early learning: “Observing and documenting children’s learning helps teachers make curriculum decisions, improve teaching decisions, and improve their understanding of where children may need support. Assessments can point educators toward paying attention to specific areas but assessments also sit within a larger ecosystem of what educators are observing as children play, thinking about children’s interests as they support specific learning.”

As states and localities expand preschool programs, leaders are creating policies for assessment and accountability. These policies are a powerful force that can strengthen and maintain the quality of a preschool program. However, when leaders do not design these policies carefully, they can undermine a program’s quality and lead to other harmful consequences. Preschool assessment and accountability policies must take early childhood development into account and avoid using assessment concepts more appropriate for older children. These policies must also use the appropriate assessments for the appropriate aspects of accountability, as explained below. Leaders should keep the following principles in mind in order to use assessment effectively and equitably, and to avoid misuse and harm to children and educators.

1. Use developmentally appropriate assessments appropriately. Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002 and its establishment of accountability goals at third grade, researchers and advocates have raised concerns about the ill effects of increased pressure to ramp up academic skill instruction in preschool. Similar concerns surround assessment outcomes linked to private and public funding decisions for preschool programs, which some researchers note may lead ECE programs to allocate limited resources to comply with external requirements at the expense of improving instructional quality. Policies should use assessments for the accountability aspects for which they were designed. For instance, preschool leaders should use professional development assessments to inform strategies for supporting educators and making staffing decisions, but leaders should not misuse these scores by using them to determine program funding. Educators should use child assessment data to target interventions for specific children, but leaders should not use this data to rank a program’s performance. Assessments are created for precise purposes, and policies that misuse assessment data can unfairly punish preschool programs.

In addition to using results appropriately, the assessments themselves must be developmentally appropriate. New state laws in New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Connecticut have steered preschool toward play-based learning. Incorporating play is a developmentally appropriate approach to determining what children know and can do, whether observing children drawing with crayons or leading them through a structured play session with specific tasks. In order to achieve valid, useful results, assessment must be developmentally appropriate. You would not give a baby a number two pencil and a Scantron sheet to assess her vocabulary. In fact, many early childhood assessments look, to a layperson, like the assessor is playing with a child. One of my favorite parts of an early childhood assessment I administered involved blowing bubbles and observing whether and how quickly a toddler turned to look at the bubbles, pointed to them, and said “bubbles!”

2. Select assessment tools carefully. There are several types that serve different functions, and choosing the correct type for the appropriate purpose is critical. The correct assessment can help an early childhood educator determine how to adjust their teaching style to meet a child’s needs, and can help a family better understand their child’s development. At the class or program level, the right assessment can help administrators make adjustments to learning environments, understand if a program strategy is effective, or help state and local leaders make policy and resource decisions. However, choosing the wrong tool can result in wasting children and educators’ time and resources, misinterpretation of results, and inappropriate policy and practice changes.

3. Use results appropriately. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, while acknowledging the great utility of assessment in early learning, has called for caution in selecting, using, and interpreting results in a policy environment focused on accountability and consequences tied to testing scores. After collecting input from a wide array of research and stakeholders, in 2008 the National Academies put forth seven conditions that systems must meet in order to responsibly use child outcome scores, such as a clear articulation of the purpose of a chosen assessment. They note that failing to invest time, funding, and expertise into designing assessment systems “risks negative effects on children, on those responsible for care and education of young children, and ultimately on society,” while using assessment correctly opens the possibility to “happier and more accomplished children.”

The NAEYC handbook on developmentally appropriate practice gives the example of a teacher using assessment to identify a child’s need for stronger math skill development, and choosing activities based on those results. The teacher “focuses on intentional math activities within playful settings that connects to the child’s interests such as sorting and counting leaves when playing outside. The teacher also communicates with family members and discusses how to strengthen the child’s math during grocery shopping,” says Friedman.

4. Ensure cultural and linguistic competence. As an assistant special education teacher in Hawai’i, I gave young children an assessment which required me to ask them which clothes they would wear for different types of weather. When I asked them which clothes to wear on a cold, snowy day, they understandably did not often know. Similarly, if I gave that assessment in English to a child who had only experienced non-English care settings, I would be cautious in interpreting the results. It would not be fair to assume the child’s understanding of the weather based on whether he could understand and respond to a question about it in English. Assessments must be valid and reliable based on the children being assessed. If that is not possible, then administrators must interpret results with extreme caution and not use them for any high-stakes decisions. Furthermore, the research and development that leads to creation of early learning assessments must reflect the diversity of young children and should incorporate input from families. “Assessments occur in the context of reciprocal communications between educators and families, and with sensitivity to the cultural contexts in which children are developing,” Friedman says.

Effective assessment is hard work and requires training and coaching. Conducting activities correctly, collecting information that is valid and useful, keeping a 4-year-old comfortable and engaged, and then correctly interpreting results requires ongoing professional development. Moreover, many aspects of assessment are vulnerable to implicit and explicit bias, which has harmful consequences when used to inform policy. Training to properly select, administer, and interpret assessments requires long-term investment and adherence to data equity principles. Leaders should select assessments that are culturally and linguistically responsive and recruit, retain, and train educators that represent the cultural and linguistic diversity of the community.

In expanding preschool programs, states and localities can take advantage of the increasing evidence base on effective, equitable assessment. Leaders should craft policies that reflect the complexities and nuances of measuring what young children know and can do. With careful consideration, assessment can be a powerful force for improving outcomes for young children.

To find out more about what states, districts, and policymakers can do to make pre-K assessment tools stronger and overcome some of the challenges, watch our new video and visit our collection page.

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