There is consensus among educators that assessments should be purposeful, aligned to instruction, and beneficial to student outcomes. However, there is a vein of debate running through the early childhood field as some professionals voice concerns over the increasing emphasis on assessment of young children, often focusing on standardized tests. In order to navigate these concerns with integrity, it is important to understand some of what is at the root of the issues. Here are four challenges that need to be considered.
1. Accounting for developmental variability
Professionals in early childhood education recognize that typical children develop at different rates in different domains. Because of this, concerns arise about assigning younger children to fixed-form assessments designed to compare students to a proficiency norm, as has been common among state summative assessments in grades 3 – 8. Typically, the information produced by a fixed-form proficiency-based test is weaker for students well above and below grade level proficiency marks. Given the greater individual variability that younger children exhibit, some professionals are concerned that some assessments may offer imprecise information for children at lower and higher levels of achievement.
As the Division for Early Childhood notes, “Very young children learn and grow at remarkable and unpredictable rates that are unmatched during other age periods. Because of this, scores from assessments administered to very young children tend to be unstable.” This has two repercussions for those with concerns. First, one-time snapshots are likely to be less meaningful for younger students. Second, professional judgment is a key factor in determining how ready each child is (particularly at and before kindergarten entry) for a certain approach to assessment.
The variability of young children’s abilities relates to two key early childhood topics that carry significance for assessment: developmentally appropriate practice and opportunity to learn. NAEYC defines developmentally appropriate practice as pedagogy and care drawing from three sources of knowledge:
- what we know about child development
- what we know about each individual’s interests, strengths, and weaknesses
- what we know about the children’s cultural and social context
We must be sensitive to a child’s opportunity to learn. For instance, children who have never had adults read books with them in interactive ways have not yet had a chance to develop concepts about books and print. Good assessment practice needs to carefully attend to inferences made about children in cases when they are assessed on concepts they have not had the opportunity to learn.
2. Understanding what gets measured
Another concern in early childhood assessment stems from the possibility of mismatch between the narrow range of proficiencies that get measured and the breadth of proficiencies that children must develop—and programs must support—in early childhood. What is measured becomes what is taught, some fear; this might leave domains such as social and emotional development and creativity underemphasized in an assessment-driven atmosphere.
Because accurate data drives higher quality outcomes for children, we must take the time to consider and navigate these concerns.”
A group of early childhood professionals voiced this concern as the Common Core Standards in mathematics and literacy were drafted, and many continue to work toward expanding conversations to include other domains. To early childhood professionals, domains such as social development are central—failure to assess them introduces a risk of failing to attend to them in instructional settings.
3. How best to assess
Another concern is over the methods of assessment used. The Alliance for Childhood group has expressed concern that inappropriate and unreliable standardized tests might be used. Early childhood has some history of multi-method assessment, rich in indirect tools such as interviews and tools that don’t feel like assessments, such as classroom observations. Seen from this perspective, the idea of “testing” may suggest to some a replacement of rich multi-method assessment with a single tool that asks students to set aside their natural behavior or curiosity in order to answer a set of questions devoid of context.
However, as technology becomes more pervasive, it is unclear whether direct assessment can be characterized in this way. In 2012, NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center sought to address this issue head on by providing seminal guidance on appropriate technology use in early childhood. The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop reports that educational app use with young children is massive and growing, for instance, and the best of these apps make strong use of children’s intuitive moves, curiosity, and need for rich context. Direct assessment data is now available from within educational activities that map less well into a traditional “testing” schema. Such activities can provide meaningful and objective data about children’s characteristics without compromising developmental appropriateness.
4. The assessment purpose
A key consideration for any decision maker is the notion that the use and interpretation of assessments can have both positive and negative effects. No professional wants to see assessment data result in some children losing access to good instructional programming, for instance. One assessment purpose which has raised significant concern is a high-stakes version of the kindergarten readiness or school readiness test. As the NRC committee on early childhood assessment notes, “Using readiness tests to make recommendations about children’s access to kindergarten is especially troublesome because many of the children recommended for delayed entry are the ones who would most benefit from participation in an educational program.” Readiness tests call upon largely discredited models of development, which essentially presume that cognitive development must precede learning in an area like reading (NRC, 1998). This view draws from Piaget, but fails to draw from social constructivist views—now more predominant in early childhood education—which suggest that development is prompted through interaction with instructional experiences.
Because accurate data drives higher quality outcomes for children, we must take the time to consider and navigate these concerns. To allocate limited resources with care, one must know who needs what as well as which efforts actually succeed in meeting each individual child’s needs. When resources go to sound, effective prevention and intervention efforts, early education offers leverage that is massive in comparison to efforts in the older grades.