Two of the major emphases of contemporary early childhood education are involvement of parents and collaboration between school and family. Effective communication with parents is of paramount importance in promoting the learning and development of young children.
Recognizing that traditional report cards with letters or other symbols representing levels of children's progress provide very limited information to parents, teachers of young children--especially at preschool and kindergarten levels--traditionally have relied on teacher-parent conferences to enhance communication. Such conferences may be the primary means of teacher-parent communication about the child or may be supplementary to written reports.
As school improvement processes have progressed, schools have adopted strategies to expand and clarify the information that teachers share with parents. The Primary Program: Growing and Learning in the Heartland (Nebraska Department of Education & Iowa Department of Education, 1993) lists the following ways for teachers to report children's performance:
"Informal dialogue; newsletters, e.g., 'This week we studied . . . .'; telephone calls; notes to parents; sending home samples of children's work; sharing children's self-evaluations; home visits by the teacher and classroom visits by the parents; conferences, report cards; and portfolios." (p. 45)
Teachers who have experience in alternative assessment processes report that parents have a clearer understanding of their children's progress when they can see evidence in the form of children's work and documentation of what teachers have observed. Tierney, Carter, and Desai (1991) suggest guidelines for parent-teacher conferences based on the contents of a children's portfolios. They emphasize a description of the child's learning using the portfolio contents as documentation, mutual exchange of information, and development of a collaborative summary of the conference for both parent and teacher to keep.
Engel (1990) recommends anecdotal reports that summarize a child's progress over a specified period of time. Such reports can identify the child's interests, breakthroughs in understanding, and growing mastery of skills. These reports are useful for parent conferences, year-end reports, and the teacher's own routine recordkeeping.
Engel (1990) also advocates descriptive inventories to be completed when the teacher has accumulated sufficient "primary data," such as notes on observation of the child and samples of his or her work. She distinguishes between descriptive inventories and checklists or scope-and-sequence charts:
"Unlike a checklist, an inventory has meaning in terms of the overall picture: No single item represents a necessary achievement. Also, unlike checklists and scope-and-sequence charts, which are set out ahead of the child pointing the way, inventories follow or 'keep track of' what has already happened. This distinction is important: It concerns the difference between prescription and description. We are describing what is--in other words, 'keeping track'--not prescribing what should be." (p. 129)
Other educators have found checklists useful to demonstrate to parents the categories of child development and learning associated with program objectives. The Child Observation Record or COR (High Scope Educational Research Foundation, 1992), for children 2-1/2 to 6 years of age, provides a form listing items of children's behavior and activities in six categories of development: initiative, creative representation, social relations, music and movement, language and literacy, and logic and mathematics. Teachers score the COR two to three times during the year, indicating on one of five levels the extent to which the child demonstrates the competency, based upon brief observation notes accumulated for each child. The teacher can discuss the COR form with the child's parent, showing examples of the documentation that supports the scoring.
The Work Sampling System (Meisels, 1992, 1993), for children 3 to 8 years of age, also provides checklists, with performance indicators of skills, knowledge, behavior, and accomplishments, and a set of guidelines to promote consistency in teachers' interpretations and care in classroom observation. The system includes development of portfolios of children's work with specified core items and optional items. The observations-based checklists and the portfolios document a summary report that a teacher prepares for each child three times per year. In preparing the summaries, teachers must reflect upon the data collected and decide what it means about each child's progress. The summaries and portfolio samples are useful for providing parents with a description of their children's work and progress over time. For further information, refer to Performance Assessment in Early Childhood Education: The Work Sampling System (Meisels, 1995).