The Early Learning Assessment Literacy Challenge

Blog Post
March 13, 2014

A kindergarten teacher looks over her students’ kindergarten entry assessment results, the first real look at what her students already know and are able to do; she thinks about what the results mean for the lessons she’s already planned. A pre-K teacher wants to conduct observations in the social-emotional domain for a comprehensive formative assessment her center purchased. A second grade teacher delivers a literacy pre-test required by the school district.

Across all levels of learning, assessments are routinely used to both satisfy accountability concerns and to structure understanding of what children know and are able to do. Growing out of a commitment to ensuring all learners receive a high quality education, assessments designed to measure achievement and hold programs, schools, and teachers accountable now play a major role in education policy and practice.

In addition, a strong consensus among education experts supports the notion that one of the best ways to improve instructional strategies and ultimately boost outcomes for individual students is through the use of assessment-generated data. This focus on assessment and using data to drive decision-making for both accountability and instruction has resulted in a proliferation of new policies and practices. It has also encouraged development of new resources, materials, and products, as well as  sparked conversations among stakeholders about the appropriate use of assessment. In the current educational landscape, classroom teachers, school principals, district administrators, and state and federal policymakers spend significant time thinking about who, what, why, how, and when to assess.

Assessment, however, can mean different things to different people. As the use of assessments continues to expand, so does the need to develop a clear understanding of the basic principles of sound assessment practice. James Popham, an educator who has been leading discussions on this topic, has written that “Assessment literacy is present when a person possesses the assessment-related knowledge and skills needed for the competent performance of that person’s responsibilities.” Popham makes clear that all stakeholders have a responsibility to think carefully about assessments in order to maximize their utility to inform both policy and practice and different stakeholders will need to have a specific set of skills and knowledge – some the same and some quite different based on roles and responsibilities.

About Early Learning Assessment Literacy:

As assessment literacy continues to be defined in the field, nowhere is the importance of delineating bodies of knowledge more important to address than in the area of early education, encompassing children from preschool to grade three. For young children in preschool and the early elementary grades, the need for clear understanding of how to use assessments is compounded by the fact that children from birth through age 8 learn and exhibit what they know and can do in ways that differ significantly from older children. Because growth is more rapid as well as more complex, dynamic, and variable during a child’s earliest years, it can be challenging to capture skills and abilities – particularly at a single point in time.

The need for clear understanding of how to use assessments is compounded by the fact that children from birth through age 8 learn and exhibit what they know and can do in ways that differ significantly from older children.

In short, the context that informs assessment decisions for early learning is qualitatively different from the context for older children. Those making assessment-based decisions in early learning and the early grades need a unique set of skills and knowledge. It is important that they have a deep understanding of the nature of young children’s learning and development as well as an understanding of what research tells us about the purpose and methods of assessments with young children.

Even for those who routinely use assessments to make decisions about student progress, the landscape of early childhood assessment can be difficult to navigate – making the acquisition of early learning assessment literacy for all stakeholders including teachers, principals, school administrators and policymakers – an important and challenging “new frontier.”

Generally, effective early childhood assessments take place over a period time and within the context of daily routines and activities. To ensure a complete picture of children’s knowledge and skills, measures should address all areas or domains of a child’s development; language and literacy, cognitive, physical, social, and emotional, as well as approaches to learning. Take a four-year-old pre-K classroom for example. A teacher might observe a student during play and in centers, note how she interacts with other children, examine whether she gives up easily when an activity is hard or if she keeps at it. The teacher would also gather information from multiple sources, especially families.

Within this context, the use of direct assessments (administered by the teacher or another assessor to a child) and screening tools to measure distinct skills such as literacy and numeracy or to identify potential gaps in learning and development are also important. However, to be most effective, they need to be part of a more comprehensive set of assessments that includes ongoing, or “formative measures,” of children’s progress that are integrated into everyday learning experiences. Finally, a full picture of children’s learning and development must also include measures of program quality and adult-child interactions. Any measure making up this system must be age-appropriate, meet standards for validity and reliability, and be fair and used for the purpose for which they were designed.

More than ever before, teachers of young children and the administrators who oversee programs and systems serving young children are grappling with important questions regarding what kind, and how much, assessment is needed. Answers to these questions are complicated by the fact that educators are being asked to assess for the competing — and only incidentally overlapping — priorities of advancing learning and meeting accountability demands. From classroom teachers and school principals to system administrators and policymakers, an understanding of sound early childhood assessment practice is a necessity now, more than ever before.

Over the next few months, we will address specific components of and important considerations regarding assessment literacy for early education and discuss the assessment skills and knowledge needed for the key stakeholders.

This post was written collaboratively by Mimi Howard, Kimberly Pearson Cooke, and Lindsey Allard Agnamba of School Readiness Consulting along with Laura Bornfreund. School Readiness Consulting provides practice-based support, policy and systems consultation, and program evaluation to ensure all children, especially those in under--resourced communities, experience an early childhood education that translates to success in school and in life.