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A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Standards, Assessments and Readiness—Oh My! (Part 2)

Published:  August 31, 2010
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Yesterday we explored how different states fare when their school-readiness assessments are matched up with their goals for children’s school readiness. (The analysis came from an informative session at the Early Childhood 2010 summit.) Most states have a long way to go.

Today, we'll take a closer look at states’ approaches to readiness assessments: What do states assess? And how? Jennifer Stedron, director for the Education Program at the National Conference of State Legislatures found considerable variation in her analysis. (Earlier this month NCSL released a technical report on this same topic. Find the full report here.)

Twenty-four states don’t perform assessments at all. Only 22 states require the assessment of all students. And 25 states require local school districts to use a specific assessment or select from a list of state approved assessments.

Here is a breakdown of which states require what when it comes to kindergarten readiness assessment:

States that perform assessments Require all students be assessed Require a specific assessment to be used Assess at least 5 domains*

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

Colorado

Connecticut

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Idaho

Iowa

Kansas

Louisiana

Maryland

Minnesota

New Mexico

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Tennessee

Texas

Vermont

Virginia

Wyoming

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

Colorado

Connecticut

Florida

Georgia

Idaho

Iowa

Kansas

Louisiana

Maryland

New Mexico

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Tennessee

Texas

Wyoming

Alabama

Alaska

Arkansas

Colorado

Connecticut

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Idaho

Iowa

Louisiana

Maryland

Minnesota

New Mexico

Ohio

Oklahoma

Texas

Vermont

Virginia

Wyoming

Alaska

Arkansas

Connecticut

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Louisiana

Maryland

Minnesota

Vermont

Wyoming

 

 (*Among the domains assessed: physical, social-emotional, approaches to learning, language and cognitive)

The majority of states that assess multiple domains use a state-created assessment instrument, which (as the NCSL report points out) can better reflect the state’s early learning guidelines. But the report also acknowledges that it is essential for states to ensure their assessments meet standards for reliability and validity, which can be time-consuming and costly. For states that only assess reading, many use the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIEBELS) or the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS)—but several other tools were mentioned too.

The NCSL analysis did not go into questions of quality of the various assessment instruments, but it's worth pausing here for a moment to consider the need for much more research and evaluation of the best ways to assess young children generally. Concerns over inappropriate assessments of young children are rampant, so it bears repeating that appropriate kindergarten readiness assessments are not "tests" in the way adults might think of them. They do not require children to sit down with a bubble sheet and number-two pencil. Often they are based on teachers' observations of children's drawings or playtime interactions. For many literacy assessments teachers conduct them by sitting down with students, one by one, to ask them questions about sounds and letters or to point to pictures. The idea is to create a low-pressure experience. But there are still many questions in the research community about how to ensure that assessments are administered in ways that are sensitive to a child's age and stage of development.

Another type of assessment worth pointing out is the readiness of schools for students. This can be just as important, perhaps more, as students’ readiness for school, yet only two states evaluate it: Hawaii and Vermont. These states specifically assess and report the readiness of schools to accept new students. (Washington is also developing a pilot program.) In her presentation, Stedron mentioned that Vermont uses a checklist that asks principals questions such as: Do you have an open house where families can meet teachers? Do you explain bus routes to parents? The Department of Education in Hawaii asks principals to visit kindergarten classrooms and note if there are a variety of hands-on activities and if teachers balance their daily routine between quiet and active times, as well as between teacher-directed and child-directed times.

To answer the original question posed in Part 1 of this post: Do states have the tools to measure whether young children and schools are meeting state standards for readiness?  It’s complicated. It is clear to Early Ed Watch that there is still a lot of work for states to do to improve states readiness assessments and better align them with their early learning guidelines. More states should develop or adopt multi-domain assessments—right now, there are only 11. And of those 11, we don’t really know which ones are weighting the assessment towards one or two domains over others.

It is also important to consider what states are doing with the assessment information. Early Ed Watch has discussed state readiness assessments and their uses before, finding that only seven states use readiness assessments to monitor statewide levels of school readiness. (Also, the NCSL goes into more detail on how assessments are used in their report.)

One final note: We really like the idea of coupling high-quality assessments of children with assessments of schools and their readiness for providing a quality experience for students. And we think the following questions are important ones to ask: How have early childhood education teachers been prepared? How does the school engage families and the community? How do schools determine if students are ready to move on to the next grade? And, finally, how can states and school districts use this information in a meaningful way?  

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