Emily's mom wants a conference. She wonders if Emily is ready for kindergarten.

Benjamin's foster father wants to know if he is doing typical 3-year-old things.

Caitlin's grandmother wants to know how long Caitlin cries after she leaves. It's making her wonder if her 18-month-old granddaughter should be attending child care.

While most everyone in early care and education agrees that assessment is essential, many aspects of the process are uncertain. Frequently, teachers and administrators ask, "Why is assessment so important? How can we accurately gather information? Who should be involved?" The answers to these questions provide a guide for administrators and teachers in quality early care and education programs to use in creating assessment policies and practices.

Why Is Assessment Crucial?

Assessment is the process of observing and documenting the work children do and how they do it. Most frequently, the purpose of assessment is to provide the basis for a variety of educational decisions that affect children. This can include selecting and planning curriculum and activities for an individual child and groups of children, communicating with parents, and placing or promoting children. Without accurate information about the child's skills, interests, and abilities, it is impossible to do any of these.

Gathering Authentic Information

The process of assessment is as important as the information that is collected. Think of this process as a series of developmentally appropriate methods. Typical examples of authentic documentation include samples of children's work at several stages of completion, photographs or videos showing work in progress, comments by teachers and family members working with the children, transcriptions or audio recordings of children's discussions, and children's dictated thoughts, captions, and stories.

Observations are best done during children's informal work and play times. This allows teachers, parents, therapists and any other observer to see and record the actual capabilities, language, and reasoning of the child related to everyday events.

This same principle applies for families and others in the life of the child who gather and share developmental information. Their observations and experiences with the child are essential in creating a comprehensive picture.

Why Is Collaboration Essential?

Have you heard a parent describe-or do you know-a child who talks freely at home yet is shy and quiet in school? Or vice versa? Children often use and show very different abilities in different settings.

Families and teachers can create the most accurate and helpful picture of a child by talking about their observations in these different settings. Begin by describing the child in your room and then ask about the child their families know. Document specific examples of the child's capabilities and share them with the family. Ask if they see the same things at home. If not, discuss why this might happen and ask the family to observe and share their new insights about the child. Families will often develop new respect for their child's skills and abilities based on these observations.

Research shows that children, teachers, and families benefit from working together in the education and care of young children. A survey completed by the U.S. Department of Education reports that teachers can improve their teaching practices by engaging in frequent and planned collaborative activities with other teachers.

Utilizing other professionals can be eye opening for teachers and administrators, and it can produce valuable information for families. Remember to keep relationships positive and consistent with community resources and agencies that provide screening and referral assistance. They are critical to successful collaboration and to meeting the many diverse needs of young children.

Programs with specific policies and consistent practices for assessment are reassuring for parents. They give a clear message that the child is the significant focus of the day and his growth and progress is foremost in the minds of both administrators and teachers.

Assessment is only valuable when it is focused on the needs of the child, applied in an authentic manner, and inclusive of those involved in the child's life. Collaboration creates a rich tapestry of information that helps us know better how to support the educational and developmental interests of each child.