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6.3: Understanding Diverse Literacy Assessment Practices

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    illustration of a branch
    Branch icon © Lucy La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license

    Young children enter classrooms with diverse backgrounds and literacy skills. Children’s daily emergent literacy expressions reveal what they know and understand about language, reading, and writing work. Interactions between language, reading, and writing are reciprocal, and literacy enrichment in one arena bolsters knowledge and growth in another. Language development serves as a cornerstone for children’s acquisition of reading and writing. The integral nature of language, reading, and writing develops throughout infancy, toddlerhood, and the early childhood years. Intentional early childhood educators use varied assessment tools and data sources to gain comprehensive understandings of children’s cognitive literacy development across the domains of language, reading, and writing. Accordingly, literacy assessment is an important part of an early educator’s mission to provide high-quality early literacy education for young children.

    6.3a Formal Assessment Practice

    Early educators use a variety of assessment tools to capture and analyze children’s literacy development and learning. Assessments, by design, are broadly identified as either formal (standardized) or informal. In early childhood education, formal assessments are used for various purposes including screening, diagnostic, readiness tests, and program evaluation (Kidd et al., 2019). Formal assessments use standardized instruments and processes that are administered, scored, and interpreted in the same way for all children (Shepard et al., 1998). This section examines the types of formal assessments and how and when early educators should use them to support children’s literacy learning.

    Types of Formal Assessments

    Formal standardized assessment results are translated into either norm-referenced scores or criterion-referenced scores. Norm-referenced scores allow educators to compare a child’s performance on specific skills to the performances of other children within their peer group. Age-based standard scores, age equivalent scores, and/or percentile ranks are frequently used to communicate norm-referenced assessment results. Norm-referenced assessments may be used to determine eligibility for early childhood special education services; however, “norm-referenced tools should be used with caution, as the accuracy and predictive value of these tools may be compromised when used with young children” (Ohio Department of Education, 2010, p. 9).

    Alternatively, criterion-referenced scores communicate how well a child performs against a set of predetermined standards or criteria. Criterion-referenced assessments use numerical scores to represent the degree to which a child has mastered specific content knowledge or gained proficiency with a set of skills. Both norm-referenced data and criterion-referenced data help educators understand what a child knows and understands at a given moment in time by either comparing a child’s performance to the performance of other children in their peer group or analyzing the child’s performance against specific criteria or developmental benchmarks (Brown & Rolfe, 2005). Table 6.1 presents a set of common criterion-referenced and norm-referenced assessments educators use to gain insight into children’s emergent literacy practices. The table highlights the specific literacy components evaluated by each assessment.

    Assessment Tool Description Literacy Domains and Indicators Norm or Criterion- Referenced
    Ages & Stages Questionnaires, Third Edition (ASQ-3)

    ASQ-3 is a developmental screening tool designed for use with children between the ages of one month to 5 ½ years. It is a great assessment tool to partner with parents, making the most of their expert knowledge. Questionnaires are available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
    • Communication Development


    Assessment, Evaluation, and Programming System for Infants and Children (AEPS)

    AEPS is an authentic assessment that combines educator observations of children in natural play-based contexts with family interviews to evaluate and monitor children’s developmental progressions. Appropriate for all children ages birth through 6 years.

    APES may be used to determine eligibility for additional services.

    • Major Areas
    • Fine Motor
    • Gross Motor
    • Cognitive
    • Adaptive
    • Social-Communication
    • Social
    • Pre-academic
    • Literacy
    • Numeracy
    • Pre-writing


    Battelle Developmental Inventory – Third Edition (BDI-3)

    A play-based diagnostic assessment for children from birth through age 7 years, 11 months.

    A supplementary assessment, the Battelle Early Academic Survey (BEAS) is for children 3 years 6 months – 7 years 11 months and offers additional assessments in literacy and mathematics.

    • Communication (BDI-3)
    • Receptive
    • Expressive
    • Articulation
    • Literacy (BEAS)
    • Listening Comprehension
    • Fluency
    • Phonological Awareness
    • Print Concepts
    • Phonics and Word Recognition


    Brigance Diagnostic Inventory of Early Development

    The Brigance is a developmental screener for children birth through age 7. The assessment uses observations, performances, and interviews.
    • Language Development
    • Expressive
    • Receptive
    • Academic/Cognitive Development
    • Literacy




    referenced inventories

    Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning, Fourth Edition (DIAL-4)

    DIAL-4 is a global screener for children ages 2 years 6 months to 5 years 11 months.
    • Language
    • Expressive
    • Receptive
    • Phonological Awareness


    Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS-PreK)*

    PALS-PreK is an early literacy screening assessment designed to demonstrate children’s strengths and areas where children may benefit from more intentional support.
    • Name writing
    • Alphabet Knowledge
    • Beginning Sound Awareness
    • Print and Word Awareness
    • Rhyme Awareness
    • Nursery Rhyme Awareness


    Teaching Strategies GOLD

    TS GOLD is an observation-based assessment system for children from birth through kindergarten. It blends ongoing observational assessment for all areas of developmental domains and academic skills (literacy and numeracy).

    It is designed to document children’s learning over time, inform instruction, and facilitate communication with stakeholders, but not for screening or diagnostic purposes.

    • Language
    • Literacy


    Transdisciplinary-Based Play Assessment, Second Edition (TPBA2)

    TPBA2 is a diagnostic and progress monitoring play-based assessment to evaluate a child’s development and provide intervention for children from birth to age 6. It is designed to evaluate four key developmental domains (sensorimotor, emotional and social, communication and language, and cognition).
    • Communication Development
    • Language Comprehension
    • Language Production
    • Pragmatics
    • Articulation
    • Phonology
    • Voice and Fluency
    • Oral Mechanism


    Pause and Reflect: Norm-referenced Assessments

    Explore a sampling of these norm-referenced assessments. What is your initial reaction to the assessments? Which test or tests did you find to be the ones which you would use for the purpose of evaluating literacy development?

    Purposes for Formal Assessment

    There are a number of reasons early educators integrate formal assessments into early childhood contexts. This section examines four purposes of formal assessment. Each of these approaches to assessment provides us a window into young children’s literacy development. Often the formal assessments used in early childhood spaces are selected by programs to align with national, state, or local requirements. Therefore, it is important for educators to understand the purposes of these selected instruments and how the data collected can be used. Figure 6.1 illustrates how assessment purposes and processes are mutually informative and fluid in nature.

    Graphic begins at the top with Screening and Readiness above a curved line that leads to a circle in the middle where a curved line starting from the bottom meets the curved line starting from the top. Diagnostic is written where the two curved lines meet. Progress Monitoring is written under the bottom curved line.
    Figure 6.1 Connection Between Assessment Purposes and Processes. Assessment Purposes and Processes © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-NC (Attribution NonCommercial) license

    Screening and readiness assessments are used in early childhood contexts to determine if a child needs further specialized evaluations or instructional interventions to ensure the child continues to thrive across developmental domains. These assessments seek to identify children who may benefit from additional intervention services designed to support a child’s cognitive, oral-linguistic, social-emotional, or physical development. Screening assessments are designed to be implemented and evaluated quickly to determine if follow-up interventions are required to support a child’s development. Consider the Apgar test performed on infants immediately after birth at the 1-minute and 5-minute mark. Focused on determining the child’s physical wellbeing, the Apgar monitors a child’s breathing, heart rate, muscle tone, skin color, and reflex irritability (Simon et al., 2021). If the child receives a low score on the scale, health care professionals will administer the necessary interventions to ensure a child thrives outside of the womb. Within school contexts, physical screening tools may be used to evaluate a child’s hearing or vision, and if their performance on the screening tools indicates areas of concern, the child will be referred for further evaluation by appropriate care providers. Screening assessments are frequently administered to all students at the beginning of the school year in order to find students who need intervention as early as possible.

    Figure 6.2 Screening and Readiness. Screening and Readiness © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license

    Readiness assessments seek to reveal what a child already knows about a set of precursory skills related to a specific domain. Intentional educators use children’s performances on readiness assessments to structure curricular opportunities for learners based on concepts a child is still acquiring and to build on knowledge the child already possesses. Readiness assessments should only be used to gain insight into what a child already knows and is ready to learn; they should not be used to perpetuate deficit perspectives that emphasize what a child cannot do which, by default, implies that a child is not ready. Simply put, although children may demonstrate different degrees of understanding at any given moment in time, all children are ready to learn. Unfortunately, school systems sometimes use readiness assessments as predictive measures to group or track children into specific instructional programs or ability-based classrooms. While it makes sense to reflect on data gained through readiness assessments in strategic ways, educators and school systems should not use this information to make broad generalizations about a child’s overall capabilities and should avoid using readiness data to make decisions or recommendations that limit children’s curricular and experiential opportunities, such as suggesting a child defer enrolling in kindergarten with age-appropriate peers (Brassard & Boehm, 2007). When assessment results are used to make decisions about a child’s access to curricular experiences, assessments become “high-stakes” for individual learners and the educational ramifications experienced by the child can persist throughout their academic career.

    Early literacy assessments, developed for initial screening purposes, usually measure students’ phonemic awareness, alphabetic knowledge, and print knowledge which are literacy competencies associated with children’s future reading performance (Coyne & Harn, 2006). Results from literacy screening assessments help educators recognize which children might experience reading and writing difficulties in the future without additional instruction or intervention (Coyne & Harn, 2006). When considering early literacy screening data, educators should keep in mind that performances on initial screenings are suggestive of a child’s future performance. In reality, research documenting children’s literacy progressions over time demonstrates that many students who demonstrate weaker phonological sensitivity (the ability to hear the sound components that make up words) on early literacy screening assessments will go on to become accomplished readers (National Research Council, 1998). This finding does not negate an educators’ need to monitor a child’s emerging phonological skills. If a child continues to demonstrate weak phonological sensitivity, it is increasingly likely the child will need more intensive support to develop proficient reading and writing skills (National Research Council, 1998). Therefore, early educators are encouraged to use children’s performances on screening assessments to provide intentional instructional literacy experiences targeting a child’s knowledge in specific literacy arenas. When emergent literacy screening, diagnostic, and readiness assessments are used in this way, early childhood educators gain insight into what their students currently know and can plan literacy experiences by targeting areas of growth for individual children (Ivernizzi et al., 2010)

    Educators observe children as they practice curricular concepts such as matching letters.
    Educators observe children as they practice curricular concepts such as matching letters. Matching game © Pexels is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license

    Diagnostic assessments also document areas of strength and areas for growth across specific literacy components. Diagnostic assessment enables teachers to modify and improve the current instruction practices to support individual children (Coyne & Harn, 2006; Gilliam & Frede, 2015). Diagnostic assessments are more detailed than initial screening assessments and data from diagnostic assessments can help educators ascertain (a) the specific emergent literacy skills a child has mastered and which skills they are still developing, (b) the most promising intervention programs for children based on individual profiles, and (c) make intentional decisions about how to sort children into meaningful instructional groups (Coyne & Harn, 2006, p. 40).

    Box says Diagnostic at top. First bullet says, Used with chidlren who have been referred for additional assessments to determine eligibility for special education services, targeted interventions, or accommodations. Second bullet says, Typically administered by outside assessment specialists (e.g., psychologist, intervention specialist, speech pathologist).
    Figure 6.3 Diagnostic. Diagnostic © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license

    Progress monitoring assessments are used at periodic intervals overtime. Progress monitoring is appropriate for children who develop at a typical rate as well as children who are meeting developmental milestones at a slower pace than their age-level peers. The Transdisciplinary-Based Play Assessment (TBPA) (Linder, 2008) is an example of a formal assessment system designed to document a child’s performances across developmental domains (i.e., sensorimotor, emotional and social, communication and language, and cognition). This particular assessment “presents a process for planning, implementing, and evaluating intervention for children from birth to 6 years of age who need supports to enhance their development” (Linder, 2008, p. 4). As the name suggests, TBPA is a play-based assessment and a play-facilitator guides the child through a series of play spaces designed to elicit particular performances. TBPA uses a team approach (including the family, educator, and other service providers) to evaluate a child’s understanding and establish baseline developmental performance levels. Upon completion of the initial observation-based assessment, the team works together to identify learning goals for the child, determine eligibility for additional services, and make recommendations for interventions.

    Subsequently, educators use the TBPA Age Tables and 9-point Goal Attainment Scales to monitor a child’s development over time. The educator uses the scales to document the child’s play-based performances attending to the strategic interventions embedded to promote the child’s growth. The educator shares the progress monitoring reports with relevant stakeholders and uses the assessment data to modify instructional practices to support the child. Learning how to monitor young children’s developmental progress in response to special intervention services they are receiving is an essential assessment practice for all early childhood educators. It takes time to understand comprehensive developmental progressions used by formal assessment systems like TBPA but, ultimately, they are rich resources for educators, families, and early care programs. Such assessment systems provide educators with meaningful growth trajectories and support educators in the creation of developmentally appropriate learning experiences for all learners.

    Box says Progress Monitoring at the top. Bullet says, Used at periodic intervals over time to monitor progress toward developmental milestones.
    Figure 6.4 Progress Monitoring. Progress Monitoring © Leslie La Croix is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license

    Formal assessments support educators’ overall understanding of children’s literacy progress. In collaboration with families and outside specialists, educators use formal assessments along with other assessment practices to encourage holistic pictures of children. Figures 6.2, 6.3, and 6.4 summarize the purposes for formal assessment and the section below explores informal assessment practices educators use to make instructional decisions with children in mind.

    6.3b Curriculum-Based Assessment

    Curriculum-based assessments, a subset of criterion-referenced assessments, document a child’s mastery of specific goals and objectives after engaging in a particular curriculum. Early childhood educators use these assessments to identify the knowledge and skills the child possesses. Educators also use information from curriculum-based assessments to design intentional instructional experiences in response to the child’s demonstrated knowledge.

    Teaching Strategies GOLDⓇ and Assessment, Evaluation, and Programing System for Infants and Children (AEPS) are two examples of common, curriculum-based assessment systems designed to support educators’ intentional documentation of children’s understandings and guide curricular decisions linked to children’s performances. Teaching Strategies GOLDⓇ uses a digital portfolio assessment system to store and evaluate artifacts (e.g., photographs, videos, and observational notes) to capture children’s literacy expressions as they interact with their environment in authentic ways. GOLDⓇ uses color-coded developmental milestone charts to monitor and support a child’s literacy growth. Similarly, AEPS is also grounded in observational assessment practices capturing children’s play-based expressions. AEPS provides educators with observational data forms to document how well a child performs specific tasks within sets of developmentally progressive, criteria-based learning objectives. APES uses a scaled evaluation system (i.e., 2- consistently meets criterion, 1- inconsistently meets criterion, and 0- does not meet criterion) to determine how children are currently expressing their emergent literacy skills.

    Early childhood programs also develop their own sets of curriculum-based assessment practices. When early care and education centers create their own curriculum-based assessment programs, they still use developmental progressions to inform their work with young children. Designing their own curriculum-based assessment practices affords programs flexibility to align practices with their unique pedagogical philosophies, values, and goals (e.g., Montessori, Reggio, outdoor learning schools, STEAM centers, etc.). Curriculum-based assessment practices help educators strategically structure learning experiences to monitor and promote children’s progressions through critical literacy milestones.

    6.3c Informal Assessment Practices

    Informal assessments are frequently designed by the educator or the program to capture children’s literacy performances throughout the school day. Informal assessments are distinguished from formal assessments in that the assessment tools have not undergone extensive piloting with diverse student populations to determine developmental norms and establish inter-rater reliability, test-retest reliability, and validity metrics. The informal label does not mean these assessment practices are not as “good” as a formal assessment. In fact, informal assessment practices are essential aspects of early childhood educators’ daily routines. Informal assessments are grounded in systematic observation practices and typically leverage a number of documentation tools (e.g., anecdotal notes, observational running records, checklists, work samples, portfolios, etc.) to capture children’s literacy expressions within familiar play-based learning contexts. Data gathered within authentic contexts provides actionable information regarding the strengths and needs of individual children without the additional scoring or comparison of a child’s performance to other children (Brown & Rolfe, 2005; Lonigan, 2006; Navarrete et al., 1990).

    Educators develop informal assessment for a variety of purposes. Some informal assessment tools capture children’s conversations, other tools document children’s attention to rhyme schemes embedded in songs and read alouds. Educators also use informal assessment tools to gain insight into children’s preferences and attitudes toward specific learning centers and literacy play materials. Well-designed informal assessment tools effectively document children’s literacy knowledge and expressions as they engage with “tasks that are personally meaningful, take place in real life contexts, and are grounded in naturally occurring instructional activities” (Epstein et al., 2004, p. 6). When designing and implementing informal assessments, educators need a clear understanding of developmental literacy progressions. Educators also need to know what individual children already understand about how language, reading, and writing interact to create literacy learning experiences and environments that support children’s emergent literacy knowledge (Navarrete et al., 1990). As educators continue to capture children’s literacy expressions over time, the intentional informal assessment notations accumulate in incremental ways to generate a more holistic representation of children’s literacy repertoires. In turn, as educators’ knowledge of each child continues to grow, they are able to make intentional instructional and curricular decisions to better support children’s literacy learning.

    When educators first begin using embedded assessment practices, it may feel awkward. Initially, children may pose for photos and perform for videos while the perfect authentic literacy enactments elude capture. Children may openly wonder why their teacher is constantly jotting notes, watching closely, taking photos, or making videos. That is wonderful. Invite children into the assessment experience, and explain that capturing all of their thinking and creating shows what they already know about how the world works. When particular documentation tools are used frequently, children and educators view the assessment practice as a natural part of the classroom culture and the tools themselves become invisible.

    Educators use informal assessment practices to provide in the moment guidance for young children. Seen in this photo is a child responding to an illustration in a book.
    Educators use informal assessment practices to provide in the moment guidance for young children. Seen in this photo is a child responding to an illustration in a book. Teacher reading © Pexels is licensed under a CC0 (Creative Commons Zero) license

    6.3d Formative and Summative Assessment Practices

    The terms formative and summative are frequently paired assessment terms focused on documenting children’s learning as they progress through units of study. Educators use formal and informal assessment tools as formative and summative assessments to gain an understanding of a child’s developmental progressions. Formative assessments are used to inform the next curricular and instructional decisions an educator will make to meet children’s interests, strengths, and needs (Kidd et al., 2019). The formative assessment methods include “all those activities undertaken by teachers […] to modify teaching and learning activities” (Black & William, 2010, p. 82). In order for these everyday assessment moments to be influential, educators need to (a) identify specific literacy learning goals, (b) select an assessment method for capturing evidence of the child’s emergent literacy performances, (c) create a plan for analyzing the assessment data collected, and (d) take time to interpret the assessment data to understand how a child is performing in relation to the specified literacy goals.

    Questions Guiding Educators’ Interpretations of Formative Assessment Data
    • What literate behaviors are children currently enacting?
    • What aspects of literacy are children mastering?
    • What literacy behaviors are children ready to begin integrating in the future?
    • What instructional scaffolds, models, and materials can be implemented to support the child’s literacy development?
    • What other information is needed to gain a more complete understanding of the child’s literacy development?

    While formative assessments capture how a student is performing in the moment and support an educator’s efforts to promote a child’s learning in the near future, summative assessments seek to present a final (or summative) evaluation of student learning (Kidd et al., 2019). Summative assessments are often utilized at the end of instructional units to “capture what a student has learned” (National Research Council, 2001, p. 25). Early education centers also use summative assessment results to evaluate overall program effectiveness (Kidd et al., 2019).

    Questions Guiding Educator’s Interpretations of Summative Assessment Data
    • How does a child’s literacy performances in language, reading, and writing compare to learning goals?
    • How does the assessment data capturing children’s overall literacy development this year compare to children evaluated in previous years?
    • In what literacy areas are children meeting or exceeding expectations related to specified language, reading, and writing goals? And, what specific program literacy practices supported children’s literacy expressions?
    • In what literacy areas would children benefit from enhanced curricular development to bolster literacy expressions?

    This page titled 6.3: Understanding Diverse Literacy Assessment Practices is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sandra Carrie Garvey (Remixing Open Textbooks with an Equity Lens (ROTEL)) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.