As enrollment in pre-K programs grows, state lawmakers are developing strategies to monitor these programs and determine their impact on student learning and readiness for school. According to a new report from the Educational Testing Service, 50 state-funded pre-K programs in 40 states have established at least some policies for collecting such data—but every state must grapple with the difficulty of assessing the youngest children, who are not developmentally ready for traditional, pencil and paper tests.
The recent report, “State Pre-K Assessment Policies: Issues and Status,” explores the challenges related to assessing young children’s learning, details various approaches to doing so and summarizes the status of pre-K assessment policies across the states.
Authors Debra J. Ackerman and Richard J. Coley echo what other experts have said about assessing young children: Paper and pencil tests will tell us very little about what young children know or are able to do. Because young children develop at such different rates, the authors argue it is difficult to fairly pinpoint “the level of academic performance that indicates whether a pre-K program is effective at improving learning.” Preschoolers have particular challenges with performing their skills “on demand,” so single assessments may not produce reliable results. Finally, preschoolers enter programs with vastly different skills depending on their previous learning experiences, or lack thereof.
Nevertheless, it is essential to measure early learning outcomes and program effectiveness. The authors suggest some issues policymakers should consider when choosing or crafting assessments for young learners: the purpose of the assessment (is it to track kindergarten readiness, inform teachers’ instruction, or inform local or state early education policies?); the validity and reliability of the assessment; training and support for those who administer, score and interpret the assessment’s results; and the costs and benefits of a single assessment tool versus multiple tools, especially when considering large scale assessment.
Ackerman and Coley discuss three approaches often used to assess young children’s learning: direct assessments, observation checklists and scales, and samples of children’s work. Direct assessments refer to standardized and norm-referenced tests, which are able to provide individual scores as well as aggregated data for large groups of children that can easily be used to compare results across classrooms, programs and populations. These data are helpful in monitoring trends over time. Such assessments, however, are less effective at providing a full picture of children’s understanding and abilities. Instead, they provide a snapshot of what a child is able to do at particular moment in time.
In direct assessment, children are asked to perform tasks away from their regular learning environment. The “test” is usually given outside the classroom and the administrator may present the child with a card that shows several letters, asking him or her to point out the letter A, for example.
In observational assessment, teachers assess children’s knowledge and skills “in context” in the classroom, often guided by a checklist or scale. Observational assessment allows a teacher to immediately use the information gathered through observations to adjust her instruction for individual students or groups of children. Consistency can be a challenge with this type of assessment. Teachers need to be trained to be reliable raters, and then their reliability needs to be checked over time.
The last type of assessment mentioned by the ETS report's authors is collecting samples of children’s work, which is sometimes referred to as “authentic assessment.” Samples can include a child’s drawings or writing or even photographs, audio or video recordings of children learning. Like observations, this type of assessment can provide real-time information to inform teachers’ instruction. It is labor intensive and again requires effort in making sure there is consistency within and across classrooms.
State pre-K programs are diverse in the approaches they take to pre-K assessment. Programs in Alabama, Alaska, Nevada and Virginia conduct direct assessments only. Nineteen state programs require observations only, with Teaching Strategies Gold and Work Sampling System the most frequently used assessment tools. (Twenty-one state programs do not give providers any choice on the type of assessments they use. Of the programs that allow providers to choose measures, 12 require that the measure must be aligned with pre-K curriculum and/or assessment standards and two, Minnesota and Wisconsin Head Start, require the measure to be aligned with federal Head Start regulations.)
Eight state programs combine approaches. For example, state pre-K providers in Florida are required to use the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener (FLKRS), which includes both observation and a norm-referenced literacy measures. Maryland, Tennessee, Texas and the 4-year old kindergarten program in Wisconsin do not require child outcome data.
State policies also vary on the frequency of assessment and reporting. Most programs require assessment and reporting to take place two to three times per year. Florida and Missouri, however, require only one assessment per year given at kindergarten entry and at pre-K exit, respectively. Kentucky requires ongoing assessment, but programs only have to report annually. Georgia’s pre-K program requires the most frequent assessment: every five weeks.
With states and competitive federal grant programs like the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge prioritizing efforts to measure children’s learning in pre-K programs, assessment of young children will continue to be an important issue. As states continue to develop and improve their policies around the assessment of young children, we hope to see plans that reflect the challenges and considerations raised by this and previous reports.