Assessment has a broader meaning today than simply assessing children's skills and abilities. Assessment is the process of observing; gathering evidence of a child's knowledge, behaviors, and dispositions; documenting the work children do and how they do it; and making inferences from that evidence.

In early childhood programs, assessment serves a variety of purposes including planning instruction for individuals and groups, communicating with families to identify children who may be in need of specialized services or intervention, and evaluating how well the program is meeting its goals.

Assessment: A Vital Process

Assessment is an important part of early childhood programs. In many states, it is required to show the individual progress of children. It is also tied to funding and grants that are used to improve program quality in ways that include planning and implementing individualized curriculum, increasing staff wages, supplementing classroom materials, as well as adding new technology to classrooms.

High-quality assessment also supports professional development. Collecting authentic evidence and documenting children's work contributes to the overall knowledge of the child, the program, and the teacher in four ways:

  • Children's learning is visible through documentation and assessment, which provide information about children's progress that cannot be obtained from standardized tests and are needed to support the validity of the curriculum.
  • Professional development, research, and developmental awareness are facilitated by documentation. As teachers examine and document children's work, their understanding of children's development is deepened.
  • Documentation encourages continuous teacher planning and evaluation of work with children.
  • Documentation enhances family appreciation and participation. Family members will be encouraged to contribute their own ideas for classroom activities when they understand children's work.

Readiness Testing Can Be Misleading

Too often, assessment takes the form of "readiness testing" with young children or "achievement testing" with older children. These tests are not especially effective with young children because they are only one "snapshot" of development and can be negatively affected by the child's mood on the day of the test, anxiety about the testing procedure, or the child's inability to understand the directions of the adult giving the test.

To provide an accurate picture of their developmental growth and capabilities, children must be observed and assessed over time using an instrument with several developmental dimensions. Teachers must document several aspects of the child's development over several months, correlate them to a reliable developmental progression, and then summarize the results. Only then can an accurate picture of the individual child be created.

Evaluating Assessment Instruments*

Ask these questions to evaluate any assessment tool you are considering. If you cannot answer "yes" to all of these questions, keep looking for a tool that meets the criteria.

  • Is the assessment tool based on reliable knowledge of child development?
  • Does the assessment tool rely on teachers' regular and periodic observations so that results reflect children's behavior over time?
  • Does the assessment tool address all domains of learning and development--social, emotional, physical, and cognitive-as well as children's feelings and dispositions toward learning?
  • Does this assessment tool provide useful information that will help teachers do a better job?
  • Is the assessment performance-based or just a test of specific skills in isolation?
  • Does the assessment rely on multiple sources of information about children, such as collections of their work (artwork, stories they write, tape recordings of their readings), results of teacher interviews and dialogues, and summaries of children's progress as individuals and as groups as well as observations?
  • Does the tool reflect individual, cultural, and linguistic diversity? Is it free of cultural, language, and gender biases?
  • Does the assessment tool allow for differences in styles and rates of learning?
  • Do the results of the assessment support parents' confidence in their children and their ability as parents?
  • Does the assessment examine children's strengths and capabilities rather than just their weaknesses?
  • Does the tool recommend the teacher as the primary assessor, and are teachers trained adequately?
  • Does the assessment tool include collaboration among teachers, children, administrators, and parents? Is information from parents used in planning instruction and evaluating children's learning? Are parents informed about assessment information?
  • Do children have an opportunity to reflect on and evaluate their own learning?
  • Are children assessed in supportive contexts to determine what they are capable of doing with assistance as well as what they can do independently?
  • Does the instrument suggest or provide a regular procedure for communicating the results of the assessment to parents in meaningful language, rather than letter or number grades, reporting children's individual progress to parents, and allowing parents to observe the process, if desired?

Selecting an appropriate assessment system is critical to the success of a high-quality early care and education program. With the right tool, you can easily accomplish your program goals.

Adapted from Guidelines for Appropriate Curriculum Content and Assessment in Programs Serving Children Ages 3 Through 8, a position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. 1990.