Early Childhood Assessment: 4 Questions at the Heart of the Debate

Beach Boy - Early childhood assessment.

Earlier this month, I kicked off a series of articles on Early Childhood Assessment, reflecting on some of the core concepts from a white paper recently published by Dr. Cindy Jiban.

Assessment in the earliest elementary school grades (prekindergarten – 3rd grade) is a complex topic, wrapped up in discourse about what’s appropriate and what’s best for our youngest learners. As we continue in our exploration of these concepts, let’s jump right into the thick of the debate.

And why shouldn’t we debate? Gaining insight into the ways in which our youngest students are progressing in their learning (or falling behind) is critical to helping us help them succeed. But if we use inappropriate methods of assessment from the outset, we risk potentially doing more harm than good. It’s a fine line, to be sure. So what are the trickiest questions at the heart of the early childhood assessment discussions? Dr. Jiban calls attention to these four:

1. How do we account for developmental variability?

2. What should get measured?

3. How should we assess?

4. What assessment purposes are appropriate in the early childhood context?

Let’s parse out each of these questions in order to better understand what’s at stake, and why these issues are worthy of debate.

How do we account for developmental variability?

Dr. Jiban points out that “typical, healthy children develop at different rates in different domains” and there is greater intra- and inter-individual variability in the performance of our youngest students as compared to our older ones. The debate in the field centers around whether it’s even possible to account for this developmental variability in the course of early childhood assessments. Those who believe it’s possible suggest that there are several things to watch out for. First, we should be careful not place too much emphasis on a single snapshot of a child’s performance. Second, professional judgment should always remain a critical factor in determining a child’s readiness for a certain type of assessment. Third, we need to be sensitive to a child’s opportunity to learn and wary of using assessments to judge student ability related to concepts to which they have not been exposed.

What should get measured?

As any early educator knows, early childhood is a critical time for development across a wide range of domains. In addition to growing rapidly in the core academic areas of literacy and mathematics, students in the early grades are simultaneously growing socially, emotionally and cognitively as well. What are the implications? Early childhood professionals warn that early childhood assessments should be used to attend to these multiple domains in order to paint the most complete picture. A good point to keep in mind here is that this does NOT mean that we must seek out a single assessment tool to measure every single domain.

How should we assess?

The previous question of what should get measured ties in nicely with the question of how we should be measuring. The debate here is focused on the appropriateness of each assessment method (e.g. observation, interviews, portfolios, projects, tests) for its own sake, and in various contexts. Some domains can be assessed in ways that may not be entirely appropriate for others. To be sure, measuring multiple domains with multiple methods is one way to steer clear of making inaccurate decisions based on a single snapshot.

What assessment purposes are appropriate in the early childhood context?

Use and interpretation of assessments can have both positive and negative effects, both intended and unintended. To avoid negative outcomes, professionals rightfully contend that each assessment should be designed and administered with a purpose firmly in mind. There is a decent amount of agreement around the need to assess for an instructional purpose (both in the early grades and beyond), but a lot of debate around assessing for readiness (in kindergarten, for instance). As kindergarten readiness continues to be a key part of the early learning funding landscape, we won’t see the debate subsiding any time soon. A key consideration here is ensuring that we never use assessments to deny educational programming to the students who need it most.

So those are some of the meaty questions at the heart of the debate. Can you think of others? Stay tuned. In the next article in this series, we’ll focus more on the areas of consensus.

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