Staff Workshop Teacher Handout: The Basics of Assessment

Understanding more about assessment tools can lead to better-quality programming

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Leadership: A Special Section for Administrators

The professional's job is to join the parents and other professionals in viewing the child multidimensionally.

This handout addresses some of the basic principles of assessment within the early childhood field. Before conducting assessment practices, teachers and staff will need to clearly understand the purpose and functions of the assessment process. Teachers and staff should also become familiar with the instruments that will be used during the assessment and recognize that not all instruments can be used for multiple purposes. 

Samuel Meisels and S. Atkins-Burnett outline the ten principles of appropriate assessment in "The Elements of Early Childhood Assessment," excerpted here:

PRINCIPLE 1. An assessment must be based on an integrated developmental mode!

What this means is that a child is an integrated being, not a collection of articulated skills, acquisitions, or elements. The development of each area of functioning is dependent on other areas. For example, the child's skill in naming a picture is an indication of sensory, cognitive, and motor abilities, as well as of language acquisition. Underlying all of this is the emotional capacity that enables children to relate to others and to organize their world. We cannot consider only one area of development in isolation from others. We also need to look at the child's functional capacities in a variety of contexts in order to comprehend how the child integrates skills into their behaviors and responses.

PRINCIPLE 2. Assessment involves multiple sources of information and multiple components.

The ability to take into account a variety of perspectives is essential for providing a complete view of the child's strengths and capacities and the optimal means of promoting further development. Information can be obtained from a variety of contexts with different tools guiding the process and informing the assessment. When members of assessment teams (and this includes the family) share their understanding of the child's abilities, predispositions, and challenges, a more complete, informed, and multidimensional profile of the child emerges.

PRINCIPLE 3. An assessment should follow a certain sequence.

Some instruments used to assess children's abilities typically follow a specific sequence. First, the administrator has to find the child's basal on the instrument.

This is the ground level, or basement level, of what the child knows or understands about the material the instrument has been designed to assess. The testing ends when you find the child's ceiling level, or the highest level of skills or knowledge the child has on the specific instrument.

Assessments should follow a sequence that begins with the establishment of reliable, working alliances with significant individuals in the child's life. These individuals hold important information about the child and his or her capabilities. To create a reliable alliance with parents, the development of mutual trust and respect is necessary, as are sensitive listening skills, responsivity to requests and concerns, openness to the family's interpretations, and honesty in interactions.

Mutual respect for the family involves understanding the family's strengths, challenges, and problem-solving strategies. Remember, the goals for assessment are to obtain useful and accurate information about the child and the child's environment in order to find or create the most optimal situation for enhancing the child's development. The sequence of assessment begins with the family, moves through multiple means of data collection, and results in the creation of plans of action.

PRINCIPLE 4. The child's relationship and interactions with his or her most trusted caregiver should form the cornerstone of an assessment.

These interactions form the foundation of the child's ability to organize and respond to his or her world. Parents are usually more skilled at reading and responding to their child's cues than even the most sensitive professionals. However, when the relationship between parent and child is strained and there is not a substitute relationship, the long-term consequences for the child can be very negative. It is critical to learn from the parent about successful interventions, and often this can come from observations of interactions between the child and the parent.

It is critical to think about the level of involvement in the intervention process that is most beneficial for the family. Some families may choose to have a very active role. Other families are so overwhelmed by their own needs and their child's demands that additional roles cannot easily be assumed and may be a burden. It will be critical as professionals that we recognize that we need to be respectful of different styles of interactions.

PRINCIPLE 5. An understanding of sequences and timetables in typical development is essential as a framework for the interpretation of developmental differences among young children.

One needs to know growth and developmental milestones. To become an effective teacher of young children, one needs to have knowledge of typical and atypical developmental stages. Likewise, to be able to assess children with validity, one needs to have knowledge of child development.

In addition to knowledge of developmental stages and milestones, those assessing young children or using assessments must also think about cultural influences on development. How the culture affects children's opportunities for learning, and how these affect developmental milestones, must be understood.

PRINCIPLE 6. Assessment should emphasize attention to the child's level and pattern of organizing experience and to functional capacities, which represent an integration of emotional and cognitive abilities.

As children learn to organize their experiences, they are increasingly able to learn about the world and to participate in it actively. Skills or behaviors with no functional application, such as "stacks three blocks," or those skills or behaviors learned and tested out of context, have no place in the field of early education. More important is knowledge about how the child uses skills and abilities, what motivates the child, what is frustrating, and what is satisfying.

PRINCIPLE 7: The assessment process should identify the child's current competencies and strengths, as well as competencies that will constitute developmental progression in a continuous-growth model of development.

The old model of assessment operates in terms of deficits by sorting and sifting children into different categories of disability or pathology. More recent assessments are looking at a child's strengths, interests, competencies, as well as ecological factors.

PRINCIPLE 8: Assessment is a collaborative process.

Assessment of young children should be based on the quality of the working relationship between parents and professionals. The professional's job is not to promote his or her views of the child to the parent, but to join the parents and other professionals in viewing the child multidimensionally in order to develop strategies that will help the child make developmental advances.

PRINCIPLE 9: The process of assessment should be viewed as the first step in a potential intervention process.

A complete assessment includes information about how to facilitate the child's development and about the supports that are needed to help the child exhibit desirable behaviors. When assessment occurs in isolation from intervention, particularly when it is dependent on traditional norm-referenced instruments, the outcome may be confusing and counterproductive. It is through that ongoing process, through testing the hypotheses uncovered during the assessment, that we can fully evaluate the validity of an assessment.

Principle 10. Reassessment of a child's developmental status should occur in the context of day-to-day family or early childhood activities, or both.

Assessment and intervention need to be interactive processes in which each informs the other.

Principles of appropriate assessment reprinted with permission from Cambridge University Press. "The Elements of Early Childhood Assessment," by Samuel Meisels and S. Atkins-Burnett. Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention, edited by J. Shonkoff and Samuel Meisels. Cambridge University Press, 2000: pp. 231-257.

  • Subjects:
    Assessment, Social and Emotional Development, Learning and Cognitive Development, School Administration and Management, Teacher Training and Continuing Education, Working with Families and the Community
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