In the field of early childhood education, assessment of learning is a multipart process that is used to make decisions about the care and education of children. In other words, assessment is the evaluation of a child's ability conducted in a natural, culturally relevant learning environment combined with the process of determining the teaching process works in the classroom for both the children and the teacher. The ultimate goal of assessment is to better understand the children you are teaching and provide them with the programming that will meet their individual needs.
The Assessment Cycle
There are four parts to the assessment cycle, a cycle that is often used when building and evaluating curriculum as well as communicating the information a teacher has learned about a child to the family. Simply put into four “steps”, the cycle looks like a continuous loop:
|Teacher observes children||--->||Teacher documents what they observe||--->||Teacher interprets the information they have documented||--->||Teacher communicates information||--->|
What Does Assessment Look Like in Early Childhood?
Assessments can be done both as a formative and summative approach. The formative assessment approach follows the teaching cycle's critical steps, including planning, implementing teaching, assessing student work, informing teaching, and administering through adaptation. Formative assessments can take the form of an informal or formal assessment and in the field of early learning are often called authentic assessment and are often carried out while teaching.
Formal assessments maintain a standard of high validity and reliability in their tools. These assessments, in general, follow a predetermined standardized format and are typically administered to all children. Formal assessments are based on research-based development, not taking into consideration biases. Formal assessments follow a national rating scale or desired results developmental profile. Often this type of assessment is called standardized assessment. On the contrary, informal assessment can be done with a holistic approach. The educator can develop the assessment to address the individual needs of the children and the learning environment.
Summative assessment is gathered usually at the end of the year or developmental people to review the overall development process and are usually taken in the form of some type of test.
In following unbiased and ethically sound observation and documentation practices, the assessment will reflect a central focus of child development. In assessing a child's growth and development, use various assessment tools to support developmentally appropriate, culturally, and linguistically responsive practices. Assessments should be observed and documented during children's daily activities, without disrupting the child's natural learning environment unnecessarily.
According to Early Childhood Curriculum, Assessment, and Program Evaluation, (which is a joint position statement of NAEYC and NAECS/SDE) it is important that teachers and early learning environments:
“make ethical, appropriate, valid, and reliable assessment a central part of all early childhood programs. To assess young children's strengths, progress, and needs, use developmentally appropriate assessment methods, culturally and linguistically responsive, tied to children's daily activities, supported by professional development, inclusive of families, and connected to specific, beneficial purposes: (1) making sound decisions about teaching and learning, (2) identifying significant concerns that may require focused intervention for individual children, and (3) helping programs improve their educational and developmental interventions”.
Assessments should be designed to fairly evaluate children regardless of age, cultural background, home language, economic status, or ability. NAEYC describes assessments as being "Derived from real-world classroom or family contexts that are consistent with children's culture, language, and experiences." (NAEYC, 2020) Additionally, assessments should adhere to professional criteria that are both valid and reliable and captured in a realistic setting.
The assessment process provides a vital part of the teaching and learning cycle that informs teaching practices and helps teachers plan effective curriculum. Through the proper observation and documentation, teachers can assess children's abilities to plan for supported teacher work and independent work in the classroom. Additionally, teachers can also capture a child's interest as part of their learning environment and foster better family partnerships. We will explore how observation and assessment inform curriculum in the last section of this chapter.
Keep in mind that the learning process may look and sound different for each child, and so it is important that teachers are responsive to the individual needs of children. Authentic assessment designed in observation-based documentation is an important part of knowing the interests of each child and their current stage of development. When making decisions about curriculum and activities to provide in early learning classrooms, teachers can feel confident that they are providing intentional experiences that support and respect each child’s growth, development, and culture.
Any assessment or information that teachers gather about children is information that should be protected. Assessments are confidential and should be stored in ways that protect the privacy of the children and families. Sometimes, other professionals working with children (such as speech therapists, physicians, or other medical professionals) might have interest in assessments conducted by teachers. Generally speaking, sharing of any assessments conducted with children require written permission by the family.
What types of child assessment have you conducted in the past?
Do you support standardized assessment of young children? Why or why not?
How Observation and Assessment ties to Curriculum
Effective teachers understand that observations and assessments are also important to help inform teaching practices and guide the learning activities for the children. Observations and assessments are a looking glass into not only the child’s physical abilities but also their interests, strengths, and learning gaps.
Through observation of several children, a teacher is able to determine if the content planned for the children was absorbed, if a child is struggling developmentally in any areas, if the teaching strategies are effectively supporting students learning, and can provide information that can be shared with families about child growth and development.
Having well planned (and spontaneous) intentional activities throughout the day that are rooted in developmentally appropriate practice gives teachers solid information about how to scaffold and develop learning and curriculum for their classroom.
To illustrate how a teacher might use observations to impact curriculum choices for an individual child, consider this scenario:
Sitting at a moon-shaped table during work time, Jackson, a three-year-old boy, balances a small red dinosaur on the handle of a kitchen spatula. “I, 2, 3, blast off!” he counts as he smacks his hand down onto the blade of the spatula and laughs as the dinosaur flies toward a white mixing bowl on the other side of the table. “Yah! Pool party!” he cheers, pumping his fist in the air as the red dinosaur joins others, landing in the bowl of water with a splash. (Delgado, 2020)
This scenario, observed in a natural environment as children are engaged in play, provides the teacher with a wealth of information about the child’s learning, development, and interests. This observation and authentic assessment provides a snapshot of what is happening in the classroom at the time and can provide the teacher with information about Jackson’s language and physical development as well as his interests that could inform future activity plans for Jackson himself and the classroom in general.
Thinking about what was observed in the scenario above, let us assume that Jackson’s teacher wrote an anecdotal record to add to his portfolio and share with his family. A sample of the anecdotal record could be:
2/2/20: Jackson, while playing at the table with spatulas and dinosaurs, said “I, 2, 3, blast off” while smacking his right hand on the blade of the spatula, laughing while it flew towards a white mixing bowl at the end of the table. He added “Yah! Pool party!” (physical domain, language).
Next, the teacher then used this observation to plan how to scaffold his learning. In figure 6.2, we see an example of a learning plan tied to the observation:
|Identify children's interests:||Jackson has been using a spatula as a springboard to propel dinosaurs into his pool.|
|Identify curriculum or assessment content area:||Experimenting|
|Part of the Daily Routine:||Small-group time|
|Description of planned learning experience:||Children will experiment with the use of tongue depressor catapults and small pompoms.|
|Consider children's developmental levels:||While observing Jackson at play, I noticed he initially repeated the same actions, even when his dinosaurs were not landing int he bowl of water. He was using trial and error rather than drawing correlations between the placement of the spatula and the "landing zone."|
Begin by supporting Jackson's current level of development:
Gently extend Jackson's learning to the next developmental level:
It is important to remember when planning for children using observations that learning is a continuum of growth that occurs over time and at differing rates across the domains of development (Copple & Bradekamp, 2009). Keep in mind that a child may be observed to fall into one domain area earlier in their stage of development, and that same child may come into later stages of development in another domain.
Once a teacher has reviewed all of the information gathered from observations, the planning of curriculum can begin. The most effective curriculum in early learning classrooms will include the following:
- it will motivate the child to explore the environment
- inspire children to investigate various centers and activities
- encourage children to explore with new materials
- allow children to engage in conversations and prompt them to ask questions
- prompt children to interact with peers
- permit children to problem solve
- celebrate diversity and embrace uniqueness
- accommodate each child’s individual needs
The process of curriculum planning should always have thoughtful reflection at the center of the planning.
To summarize briefly how assessment and curriculum are connected: curriculum involves learning concepts through strategies the teacher plans and assessment determines whether the skills or knowledge has been learned. In the scenario with Jackson, the plan the teacher wrote after observing his play becomes the curriculum. Assessment will occur through another observation after the plan is executed and the teacher can determine if the goal of experimenting with tongue depressors deepens and strengthens Jackson’s learning.
Through careful observation, documentation, interpretation and reflection, teachers can plan and implement effective curriculum that that each child can thrive as they master major developmental milestones.
Teachers who are skilled in child observation become very thoughtful and purposeful in their techniques. As teachers use the combinations of various tools such as running record, anecdotal note, video recording, checklist, frequency counts, and work samples or portfolios, they are learning unique factors about children in order to better help support the child. Teachers are also able to use this information to examine the ecological system of the classroom and develop curriculum. This could range from knowing how to individually engage children as they are developing, how effective the teaching strategies support learning, and if the expectations and goals are at the appropriate level of development.
Lastly, thoughtful observation and assessment of children can provide teachers with the confidence in providing intentional teaching and learning experiences that support the unique needs of each child.