Assessment in Early Childhood

Excerpt from the ELORS Teacher's Guide by Margaret Gillis, Ph.D., Tracey West, Ph.D., and Mary Ruth Coleman, Ph.D.

Background Information and National Standards for Assessment

There are many reasons why children undergo assessments; among these is the desire to know how well children are learning, if they are making progress and meeting proficiency benchmarks, and if they are being taught effectively. Data from assessments provide valuable information for planning whole-group and individualized instruction, for determining program quality, and for communicating with others. Assessment practices encompass a range of instruments and techniques including structured one-on-one child assessments, standardized assessments, portfolios, rating scales, and observation. Comprehensive assessment is based on information from multiple sources, including measures that provide different types of information.

National Standards

The term “national standards” refers to the principles that guide practice to promote quality in education. In early childhood education, standards are outlined by two key organizations: the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Division for Early Childhood (DEC) of the Council for Exceptional Children. Both NAEYC and DEC recognize assessment as a central component of early childhood programs and prescribe its use for a variety of purposes. NAEYC recommends that assessment be used for decision-making regarding teaching and learning, identifying children’s needs, and improving education and intervention programs (NAEYC, 2005). Likewise, DEC recommends that assessment provide information that is useful for intervention (Sandall, McLean & Smith, 2000). The National Education Goals Panel describes the use of assessment to support learning and instruction and to identify children in need of additional supports or services (Scott-Little, Kagan & Clifford, 2003). Teachers are expected to use assessment results to adapt and individualize curricula and teaching approaches and to communicate with families (NAEYC, 2005; Sandall, McLean & Smith, 2000). Screening plays an important role in the assessment process, as it can be used to determine which children need further assessment and in what domains of development and learning (National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities, 2005).

It is recommended that teachers use both formal and informal screening and assessment approaches to systematically evaluate children’s growth across all domains of development and learning within natural contexts, including the early childhood classroom (Bordignon & Lam, 2004; NAEYC, 2005). DEC recommends that professionals and families collaborate to plan and implement assessment (Sandall, McLean & Smith, 2000). A variety of assessment tools and approaches, including rating scales, checklists, norm-referenced tests, portfolios, and observations, can be used to learn more about the child’s strengths and challenges. Assessments must be culturally, linguistically, and individually appropriate and should address all children’s development, progress, strengths, and needs (NAEYC, 2005; Sandall, McLean & Smith, 2000). NAEYC also recommends that the assessment process take into account factors that may influence children’s performance, such as hunger or lack of sleep.

Screening measures should be used to identify children who require further evaluation to determine whether they are in need of additional support or early intervention (Meisels & Fenichel, 1996; NAEYC, 2005). Additionally, teachers and other staff must be knowledgeable about the assessments they administer and should be able to connect assessment results with classroom practices (NAEYC, 2005). Results of assessment should be incorporated into the curriculum and used to individualize instruction.

Universal screening

Universal screening is an emerging practice in early childhood settings (NAEYC 2005). Universal screening involves using low-cost tools that can be administered quickly and used repeatedly to gather data on each child in the classroom. While universal screening with all children is not yet a reality in most early education programs, early childhood teachers are moving in this direction. A good place for teachers to begin is to consider all of the assessment information that is already being gathered in their classrooms. Ideally, formal and informal measurement activities are linked to the curriculum and to early learning standards, and samples of student performance are collected repeatedly throughout the year to assess children’s progress in learning and to inform adjustments in classroom instruction.

Progress Monitoring

Progress monitoring is a term used to describe any of a number of activities or approaches to data collection that focus on a child’s learning over time and help to document and provide meaningful feedback on learning outcomes. Progress monitoring measures (e.g., Individual Growth and Development Indicators [IGDIs]) provide information about the rate and level of children’s growth in key skills, which helps to determine the intensity of support and services each child needs to be successful. Currently, the majority of progress monitoring tools target language and early literacy skills rather than all domains of development and learning.

Observation in Naturalistic Settings

Teachers and parents are uniquely positioned to obtain information about how children function within different natural (e.g., classroom, community) environments or settings. One way teachers can understand children’s development, interests, and needs within the context of the pre-kindergarten or child care classroom is through observation and documentation (Bordignon & Lam, 2004). Through systematic observation over time, teachers are able to routinely observe children engaging in regular classroom routines and activities and reflect on the meaning of what they see (Hills, 1993). For example, a teacher might observe that a child does not initiate book interactions or attempt writing and might reflect on what this means for that child. The key to systematic observation is that conclusions or interpretations are based on observations of the child over time rather than a one-time assessment of a child’s skills and abilities.

Successful observations allow teachers, parents, and other adults to capture and record meaningful details while children are engaged in a variety of activities and take into account children’s development, interests, and needs across domains of development and learning, allowing for a more complete view of the “whole child” (Bagnato, 2007). For example, when observing three children stringing beads and talking together about the shapes and colors of the beads, a teacher observes the children’s fine motor skills while also observing their cognitive, language, and social skills.

When conducting observations, teachers must take particular care to avoid allowing any preconceptions or biases color their impressions. When conducting systematic observations, teachers should be using their understanding of child development as a filter to identify expected behavior as well as pick up on red flags that indicate a child might be struggling with learning. The use of guided observations, like the ELORS, helps to ensure that observations conducted by teachers and parents are carried out in a systematic and objective manner.

Systematic observation should:
  • Occur multiple times over a period of time (e.g., every day for a week)
  • Collect information from multiple sources (e.g., teachers, parents), and
  • Collect information from multiple contexts (e.g., classroom, playground, home) (Appl, 2000).

This is important because children often exhibit different behaviors and skills in different contexts. Different observers may be sensitized to different skills, and over time a child’s rate and level of development might change. A teacher may observe that a child’s use of language in the classroom is limited, but a parent may observe that the child has an extensive vocabulary and uses a lot of language in interactions with siblings and neighborhood friends. With this information, the teacher knows that the child is capable of using language in play and can then plan ways to encourage language use within the classroom.

When teachers observe children in the classroom, they are afforded unique opportunities to understand how to enhance classroom routines and instructional practices. Gathering student observation data provides teachers with opportunities to reflect on the classroom environment, curriculum, and teaching strategies and to determine which aspects of the classroom experience are working well for the children and which aspects might be adapted to better meet children’s needs. For example, if the teacher notices, through whole class observations, that many children seem to struggle with self-management during free time she may decide to teach specific routines to help children. These routines may be as simple as a guideline that you must wear goggles in woodworking and there are only two pairs of goggles provided to limit the number of children in woodworking to two. Through systematic observation of the whole class the teacher becomes aware of patterns of needs and can respond appropriately.

While formal assessment methods are required for determining serious learning delays or disabilities, systematic observation is a promising method for screening children to recognize and respond to their needs. Observation allows teachers to record information about all areas of development and to identify areas of strength as well as areas of need. Additionally, because observation occurs in natural contexts and is meaningfully connected to the routines, activities, and curriculum of the classroom, teachers can identify children’s interests in order to adapt curriculum and incorporate skill building into activities that are of interest to the child.

Use of Teacher Ratings to Identify Children at Risk

The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (2005) states that systematic observation can allow for meaningful assessment of interests and needs. Observation puts minimal constraints on children’s behavior and activities, allowing them to behave naturally and exhibit their full range of skills and abilities while engaging in activities that hold meaning for them, such as dramatic play activities or block construction (Hills, 1993; Schweinhart, 1993).

With use of systematic observations, teachers can become very familiar with the interests, needs, and strengths of all of the children in their classrooms. Some children may exhibit observable patterns of behavior that indicate they are struggling with learning prior to formal identification as learning disabled, as young as age three (Lowenthal, 1998; Steele, 2004). With a tool to target their observations, teachers can use systematic observation as a quick and cost-effective way to determine which children might be struggling with learning and benefit from additional support (Satz & Fletcher, 1988).

Once teachers have observed children over a period of time, they can rate their concerns regarding children’s behavior and skills with confidence. Teacher ratings have been useful for assessing and predicting children’s skills and abilities in a number of areas, including communication, kindergarten readiness, literacy, and social-emotional (bailey & Drummond, 2006; bates & Nettlebeck, 2001; Botting & Conti-Ramsden, 2000; Flynn & Rahbar, 1998; Gilmore & Vance, 2007). Studies have shown that, through informal methods, teachers can accurately identify the majority of children who are also identified by formal assessments as needing additional support (Flynn & Rahbar, 1998). Additional research with older children (six- to eight-year-olds) suggests that teacher ratings might also be useful for identifying children at risk for learning disabilities (Leung, Lindsay, & Lo, 2007). The National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities (2005) states that systematic observation can allow for meaningful assessment of interests and needs. Observation puts minimal constraints on children’s behavior and activities, allowing them to behave naturally and exhibit their full range of skills and abilities while engaging in activities that hold meaning for them, such as dramatic play activities or block construction (Hills, 1993; Schweinhart, 1993).

It is also important to consider the timely and ongoing manner in which screening and observation data will be shared among school personnel and with families. Teachers should provide regular child progress updates to families, hold periodic family-teacher conferences, and share general information about learning goals and expectations for children, by phone or in person during one-to-one conferences or at school open house meetings.

Suggested Tip!

Be Ready for Reading

Bring a book to your child’s next doctor’s appointment to ease the wait.  And, leave a book where you keep your reusable shopping bags to make the shopping cart a rolling reading room
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