Many early childhood educators are uncomfortable with the idea of testing the young children they work with. This is because the assessment tools they know were designed primarily for older elementary-school students. Children taking these tests are assessed on isolated skills in ways that are unfamiliar to them, and the test results often do not reflect children's personal experiences or knowledge.
In recent years, however, a new approach to assessment has been gaining acceptance among early childhood and primary grade teachers. Known as "performance" or "authentic" assessment, these new tools have many benefits that standardized tests do not. For example:
- They systematically document what children know and can do based on activities they engage in on a daily basis in their classrooms. Standardized test items, in contrast, barely approximate actual classroom tasks. In addition, performance assessment evaluates thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and interpretation of facts and ideas — skills which standardized tests generally avoid.
- They are flexible enough to allow teachers to evaluate each child's progress using information obtained from ongoing classroom interactions with materials and peers. In other words, they permit an individualized approach to assessing abilities and performance.
- They are a means for improving instruction, allowing teachers to plan a comprehensive, developmentally oriented curriculum based on their knowledge of each child.
- They provide valuable, in-depth information for parents, administrators, and other policy makers.
- They put responsibility for monitoring what children are learning — and what teachers are teaching — in the hands of teachers, where it belongs.
Components of Performance Assessment
A comprehensive performance assessment system should contain some variation of the following components:
- Developmental Checklists
Checklists covering domains such as language and literacy, mathematical thinking, and physical development, are designed to reflect developmentally appropriate practices. Teachers use checklists throughout the year to create profiles of children's individualized progress in developing skills, acquiring knowledge, and mastering important behaviors.
These purposeful collections of children's work illustrate their efforts, progress, and achievements over time. Teachers and children can compile the collections together from work completed in the classroom. As they talk together about the child's interests and progress, they develop new activities for the child to focus on.
- Summary report
A summary report consists of a brief narrative summary of each child's classroom performance. It is based on teacher observations and records that are kept as part of the system. In completing this summary, teachers should carefully review the checklists and portfolios and then make overall judgments in order to report to parents, administrators, and others about each child's activities and progress.
The three basic components of performance assessment — developmental checklists, portfolios, and summary reports — are all necessary. Without ongoing checklists, teachers could not keep track of children's progress toward widely accepted curriculum goals. Without portfolios, differences in the quality of one child's work over time might be hidden, and children's ability to take an active role in evaluating their own work ignored. Without summary reports, easily understandable information for parents, teachers, and school administrators would be unavailable. Together, the three components constitute a dynamic, authentic performance system.
Advocating For Performance Assessment
Whenever you gather with other professionals, parents, your supervisor, principal, or members of your school board, use the opportunity to promote the use of some kind of performance assessment in early childhood classrooms. Copy and distribute the "Benefits of Performance Assessment" (see below). Also, remember that whether you use an available system of performance or authentic assessment, or develop a tool of your own, the actual examples of children's work that you have on file, as well as ongoing observations of their individual growth and development, are the strongest possible advocates for performance assessment. Use them to show the depth and breadth of information they contain about each child. No other approach has so much to say about what the child brings to the learning situation, and what the learning situation brings to the child!
Benefits of Performance Assessment
A system of developmental checklists, portfolios of children's work, and summary reports, when used together, can help you to:
- Recognize that children can express what they know and can do in many different ways.
- Evaluate progress as well as performance.
- Evaluate the "whole child."
- Involve children in the process of assessing their own growth.
- Establish a framework for observing children that is consistent with the principles of child development.
- Contribute to meaningful curriculum planning and the design of developmentally appropriate educational interventions.
- Give parents specific, direct, and understandable information about their child.
- Collaborate with other teachers, thus enhancing your own professional skills.