Strengthening Assessments of Young Children’s Learning: Perspectives from Home-based Pre-K Providers

Blog Post
July 25, 2022

There has been renewed attention on strengthening assessments of early learning to improve pre-K quality and help educators tailor and deliver effective instruction. While these policy investments tend to focus on school-or center-based pre-K, many three- and four-year old children actually attend pre-K in home-based child care settings, with about half of states including home-based care in their state-funded pre-K programs. In order for all children to benefit from efforts to strengthen early assessments, it is critical to consider the perspectives of home-based pre-K providers.

Earlier this year, New America, MDRC, and the Alliance for Early Success gathered policymakers, pre-K advocates, and home-based providers in a convening focused on re-imagining early learning assessments across diverse pre-K settings. MDRC then spoke with Alexandra Patterson, Director of Policy and Strategy at Home Grown, a national organization working to improve the quality of and access to home-based child care, on this topic. Here are some key takeaways from these discussions:

Assessments should elevate children’s strengths and help facilitate communication with families.

Convening participants reported that assessments need to recognize the skills and strengths that young children already possess instead of focusing primarily on problems or deficits. There is a pressing need for culturally and linguistically appropriate tools that capture the strengths of diverse groups of children.

Patterson noted that “Many current assessment tools don’t align with families’ priorities and what they want for children. [Assessments] don’t tell stories about how incredible young children are; they don’t tell families a story about what’s awesome about their kid. It’s important to recontextualize assessments as a way to demonstrate strengths.”

One convening participant shared their observation that pre-K providers rarely ask families about their perceptions of children’s strengths. Other participants also discussed the need to use assessments to facilitate positive communication between families and educators by elevating strengths rather than focusing solely on areas for improvement. They also highlighted the importance of collecting assessment information across time, being able to show families data on children’s progress throughout the course of the year, and even directly including families in the assessment process.

Assessment tools should leverage home-based educators’ expertise while also enabling the collection of unbiased information.

Convening participants discussed the importance of striking a balance between integrating educators’ observations as part of the child assessment process and using innovative ways to measure a broad range of children’s skills—including academic and social-emotional development—in ways that minimize bias. Home-based providers often care for children across multiple years and become the experts on their well-being and development. One participant shared that “educators [in small, home-based programs] have built nuanced, durable connections with children.” Ensuring that there are approaches in place to allow educators to provide their perspectives as part of the assessment process can honor that expertise.

Participants agreed that while educator voice is a critical component of assessments, anecdotes alone are not enough to paint an accurate picture of children’s development. Others noted the opportunities for observation-based early childhood assessment tools to enhance the quality of information being gathered, while respecting educator perspectives. Thus, the attendees underscored the potential for a range of new and innovative tools, like child- or educator-administered games, to be used in combination with insights from educators in order to minimize the likelihood of bias and to capture a broad set of skills.

Educators need better support and training on how to use assessment information effectively.

Multiple convening participants highlighted the need to provide educators with appropriate supports and training on how to implement available tools and how to interpret and apply assessment information more effectively—and to specifically consider the unique needs of home-based educators. For example, because they are often the sole practitioner in a program, home-based educators may not be able to leave their homes easily to attend training sessions. Relatedly, attendees highlighted the importance of having the tools to support effective communication of assessment results. “Even if you had the unicorn assessment, there isn’t a great structure in place to effectively use the assessment results. Preparing people to receive assessment results is so necessary and challenging,” one participant said. Critical to this approach is ensuring that assessment results are not used to judge or label children.

As we listen to the perspectives of home-based providers, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate their unique and close relationships with families. As Patterson shared, “a key strength of home-based child care is that learning is embedded in different parts of the home and the community. So, in thinking about assessments, we need to think broader than just classrooms. Learning is possible in lots of settings, lots of environments – it’s not just classrooms where that happens.” Elevating these perspectives in the design, development, and implementation of better assessment tools is critical for strengthening the quality of early learning systems for all children.

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