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Critical Issue: Assessing Young Children's Progress Appropriately Critical Issue: Assessing Young Children's Progress Appropriately

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ISSUE: School improvement emphasizes enhanced achievement for all children, but determining young children's achievement demands special consideration. Assessment of the progress and attainments of young children, 3 to 8 years of age, requires understanding that they grow and change rapidly, particularly in their social and emotional development; that they can be easily distracted by assessment procedures; and that they have little or no personal interest in being assessed. Given these characteristics, how can educators determine what the youngest children know and can do, and how can they use that information to carry out the aims of early childhood programs?

OVERVIEW: In recent years, teachers and administrators have recognized the problems unique to assessing young children. These problems arise from a combination of the developmental characteristics of 3- to 8-year-olds and the kind of curriculum that is appropriate in early childhood programs. Assessment processes traditionally accepted for older children are not developmentally appropriate assessment, nor are they sufficiently informative for assessing young children.

Abuses and misuses of tests for assessing young children have been documented (Meisels, 1987, 1989, 1993; Shepard, 1991, 1994). Excessive use of standardized tests is especially inappropriate (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1987). Standardized achievement tests alone cannot fulfill the major purposes of assessment in programs for young children. Those purposes are: instructional planning and communicating with parents, identification of children with special needs, and program evaluation and accountability (Hills, 1992).

Concern about the role of assessment in improving early childhood education is part of the widespread conviction that much of standardized testing has served public elementary and secondary education poorly. In too many cases, narrowly conceived, multiple-choice or short-answer tests have overemphasized low-level reading, writing, and math skills isolated from a context of meaning. They have neglected the kinds of critical thinking and problem solving required for successful functioning currently and in the future. (See the Critical Issue: "Rethinking Assessment and Its Role in Supporting Educational Reform.")

Charlotte HiguchiCharlotte Higuchi, a third-grade teacher at Farmdale Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, talks about the differences between standardized tests and developmentally appropriate assessment. [236k audio file] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #4, Alternatives for Measuring Assessment (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text transcript is available.

Influential professional associations such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education have issued position statements on assessment as an integral part of curriculum and instruction. These position statements offer guidance to school personnel who seek to improve school programs for the youngest students. Young children's thinking and learning are not compartmentalized into content areas, and their accomplishments in new learning are supported by their prior experiences and understandings. The way they learn, therefore, requires an integrated curriculum. The curriculum, in turn, requires that assessment procedures frequently sample a broad range of their performance in many learning contexts.



IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: The differing beliefs and expectations about assessment among teachers, administrators, school board members, parents, and the community may make it difficult to elicit acceptance of developmentally appropriate assessment approaches.

Most teachers in early childhood classrooms lack systematic training in the new conceptions of assessment. They will need professional development opportunities to learn the new skills and knowledge, and they will need supervisory and administrative support as they attempt to implement alternative assessment. Administrative support will be essential if school board members and parents are to accept a new approach to assessment.

The assessment program adopted for early childhood programs should be based upon appropriate expectations for the learning and development of children in preschool, kindergarten, and primary years. Like curriculum standards, assessment standards should be articulated with programs that follow kindergarten (including any end-of-primary benchmarks) so that the entire elementary school experience is planned as a coherent whole. If not, markedly different expectations at the higher grade levels may predispose the preschool-through-primary program to perceived failure. Such a perception ultimately can result in a downward articulation of end-of-primary expectations to second grade and below.

Reform and improvement of assessment programs requires time and effort. There are likely to be some problems along the way, with consequent need to alter some of the original plans or work harder on implementation. If teachers, administrators, school board members, and parents except too much too soon, the reform and improvement movement may be abandoned prematurely as a failure in favor of a return to over-reliance on traditional formal testing, with the potential problems already cited.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Many people believe that formal testing is an absolute requirement for meaningful assessment of students. They believe that only scores on standardized tests can determine whether and how much students have learned and whether school programs are accountable. Those who emphasize the importance of standardized achievement tests may doubt teachers' abilities to be objective, and they place high value on comparisons of their particular students' achievement with the achievement of those in other schools or previous years.

Some teachers feel pressure from administrators or teachers of higher grades to give young children experience with standardized testing. Even if they have concerns about such tests, these teachers may feel an obligation to administer them.

School board members, elected officials, and high-level administrators must confront issues of accountability: Are school programs accomplishing their mission, and do they justify the public expenditures that support them? They may rely almost entirely on standardized testing programs to answer these questions, believing that the tests are objective and stringent and thus can lead to accurate inferences about student achievement.

Some teachers are concerned about alternative, performance-based assessment systems that require observation, recording, and narrative reports of children's progress. They may believe that their workload is already too great without additional assessment tasks. Even though the majority of teachers of young children distrust standardized tests for assessing achievement, they may be apprehensive about undertaking a new approach that demands new skills, new knowledge, and possibly more time.

Many parents have faith in standardized testing, which has been greatly emphasized by the media, elected officials, and public school educators during the last 15 or 20 years. Parents may object to changes in the ways teachers report to parents about children's performance, such as narrative reports or checklists instead of traditional letter grades. They may fear that alternative, performance-based assessment and narrative reports, instead of traditional report cards, signify lower standards.


Portofolio assessment of South Brunswick Public Schools, South Brunswick, New Jersey

Assessment at Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Education Center, Peoria, Illinois

The Primary Program: Growing and Learning in the Heartland

Project Construct, an early childhood program of integrated curriculum and assessment, developed by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education


Nebraska Department of Education
Office of Early Childhood Care and Education
P.O. Box 94987
Lincoln, NE 68509-4987
(402) 471-6518; fax (402) 471-0117
Contact: Harriet Egerston, Administrator

Project Construct National Center
University of Missouri-Columbia
27 South 10th St., Suite 202
Columbia, MO 65211
(800) 335-PCNC or (573) 882-1610; fax (573) 884-5580
Contact: Sharon Shattgen, Director, or Nancy Zguta, Assistant Director

South Brunswick Board of Education
#4 Executive Drive
P.O. Box 181, Monmouth Junction
South Brunswick, NJ 08852
(908) 297-7800; fax (908) 422-8054
Contact: Andrea Orlando, Staff Developer

Valeska Hinton Early Childhood Center
800 W. 5th Street
Peoria, IL 61605
(309) 672-6810

The Work Sampling System Assessment Projects
3210 School of Education
University of Michigan
610 University
Ann Arbor, MI 48109
(313)763-7306; fax (313)747-1082
Contact: Samuel J. Meisels, Professor


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Tynette W. Hills, an educational consultant based in Durham, North Carolina.

Date posted: 1997
Revised: 1999
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