The Child & Family Policy Center at New York University convened a two-part Forum series on Improving Child-Level Assessments in Early Childhood Settings. The first meeting took place in May 2011 and brought together researchers, practitioners, and policy makers, to identify the challenges and opportunities for improved child-level assessments to support young children’s educational progress by discussing the importance of aligning the measurement needs of the different constituents. During this Forum participants volunteered to participate in three “working groups.” These working groups were ad hoc committees designed to generate clear, actionable recommendations for ways that existing assessments can be used, reduced, or integrated to meet the data and measurement needs of teachers and agency directors. Three main working group topics were identified: 1) how might assessment information be effectively communicated to parents & families? 2) how do child-level assessments influence teacher practice? and 3) how can directors and classroom coaches appropriately choose the best measure(s) to inform practice? The groups assembled several times during the 2011-2012 academic year to discuss direct assessment in the preschool environment from the perspectives of three major stakeholders: parents, teachers, and program directors.
What follows is a brief report of the topics addressed by each working group. Recommendations for immediate practice improvements and long-term policy considerations are provided. We urge you to contact us with feedback or comments regarding this policy brief at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 998-5885.
Why Direct Assessment for Early Childhood?
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 legislated a mandate that statewide early childhood assessment procedures be established by the 2005-2006 school year (NCLB, 2002). This increased focus on early childhood assessment in national education policy warrants a discussion about how assessment implementation, validity, and the entire assessment experience may be improved for all pertinent stakeholders. Educators and directors are searching for strategies to improve their practice so they may actively monitor and support young children’s educational progress. Similarly, researchers and policymakers should understand the context that educators are operating in so the data gathered may be evaluated appropriately and better inform such decisions. During the Forum, keynote speaker Michael L. López, Ph.D.
Setting the Stage: Accountability, Quality & Diversity
Early childhood education and care has garnered substantial national attention during the past decade (Rous, Lobianco, Cara Lin, & Lund, 2005). In New York City, there has been a dramatic growth in preschool enrollment (NYC DOE, 2011).
There is a growing emphasis for the development of early childhood accountability systems to monitor student progress and measure program effectiveness. Early childhood programs that require the use of observational and direct assessments commonly cite using Teaching Strategies GOLD, Work Sampling System , and the Child Observation Record (Halle, T., Zaslow, M., Wessel, J., Moodie, S., and Darling-Churchill, K., 2011).
The recent adoption of the Common Core Standards (CCS) in preschool by New York State has drawn attention to accountability systems, curricula, and measurement tools needed to adequately implement and measure student learning (National Association for the Education of Young Children- NAEYC, 2011). This provides an opportunity to examine how agencies and states can build an integrated system of assessment that can align with the new standards and curricular foci.
What are Working Groups?
Working groups, comprised of volunteer Forum participants, were developed to discuss issues related to the delivery of high quality assessment of young children from the perspectives of three distinct stakeholders - parents, teachers, and directors and instructional coaches. For one year, members from each group met several times to grapple with issues pertaining to child-level assessment practices. Each group constructed a unique strategy for reviewing existing policies and practices with the aim of improving procedures for implementing child assessments in early childhood classroom settings.
Parent Working Group
Who: 3 members of Head Start Policy Council, 6 policy administrators, and 5 practitioners.
Focus: Parental empowerment in childhood assessment.
The Parent and Early Childhood Assessment Working Group (PECA) was charged with thinking about ways to present information about assessments to families. Given that children are being assessed multiple times throughout the school year this group expressed the importance of maintaining clear communication with parents about their child’s assessment results. When parents are informed and teachers are supported, assessments are often viewed as being informative, reassuring, and inclusive. When parents are not informed, assessments can be viewed as threatening, one-sided, and confusing, creating barriers for parental understanding and engagement in the assessment process with young children.
PECA’s conceptual framework identifies three domains for intervention (López, Peterson, Baca, & Caspe, 2011): access, understanding, and action. Empowered parents have access to information about assessments, an understanding of the assessment process, and sufficient motivation to take action as advocates for their child during the assessment process.
In order to empower parents through understanding, PECA began work on developing an “Assessment Toolkit” for parents, which used clear and accessible language regarding assessment practices. Conceptualized as a comprehensive set of tools for programs to provide to their parents, the toolkit includes a Parents’ Bill of Rights, definitions and general information, and a list of important questions for parents to ask teachers during the assessment process.
In order to empower parents through access, PECA also proposed creating a Parents Educating Parents taskforce, a self-sustaining group of volunteer parents trained to provide information to other parents about assessment practices in early childhood. The taskforce would be available to programs across New York City to provide information about direct child assessments at parent orientations or during workshops. Because parent groups already exist, one option for implementation would be to add an assessment module to their curriculum. Research into existing models in our city/state suggests that approximately $20,000 per year would be required to fund a group of 20 parents that would train both incoming members and parents at large in the community.
- Take advantage of opportunities to get involved in the assessment process
Early childhood programs
- Make assessments family-accessible, meaningful and actionable
- Align assessment across the PreK-K transition, involving families in the process
- Prioritize funding initiatives that facilitate meaningful family engagement in assessment
Teachers Working Group
Who: 6 members: researchers, educators, and funders
Focus: Pre-service and in-service teacher training in childhood assessment
The Teachers Working Group was charged with determining the roles, needs, and challenges teachers encounter in the context of classroom child assessment. Through collaboration and shared expertise, the group’s mission was to bring together voices from the field to identify where concerns exist through an examination of the “big issues” in early childhood assessment from the lens of teachers. Although this group did not have the opportunity to work directly with early childhood teachers, group members did consult professors from early childhood teacher training programs and New York State officials to gain perspective on the “big issues” teachers experience. These conversations highlighted the need for both pre-service and in-service teacher training in child assessment.
To address these needs, higher education programs should provide teacher-training program students with stronger foundations in child development and assessment, and familiarize students with the instruments used in the field. In this way, new teachers may enter the field better prepared to engage in authentic assessment. In addition, policy makers and directors should establish systems of professional development and support for early education teachers, especially those in under-resourced communities. In-service training should be geared toward understanding and addressing teachers' concerns surrounding assessments, helping teachers make informed decisions when choosing and implementing assessments, and training teachers to use assessments to inform practice. Providing systematic and ongoing professional development for teachers in the areas of child development, assessment, and observation, can lead to more valid assessment data to inform both instruction and research.
- Provide a stronger foundation in child assessment
- Familiarize students with the best instruments in the field
- Establish systems of professional development
- Provide opportunities for support and growth
- Provide the on-site support for authentic assessment
Directors Working Group
The task of the Directors Working Group was to identify critical issues early childhood education directors/executive directors in community-based organizations (CBOs) face when conducting assessments and supporting practitioners. Members came from public sector, service provider, and research backgrounds. This group concluded that child assessments allow directors to monitor student progress, support teachers and identify programmatic strengths and areas for improvement. Assessments also require directors to select measures, train teachers, monitor implementation, and analyze results to drive decisions at the child, classroom and program levels.
Through research and evaluation efforts, the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) is working towards developing a system that will provide tailored training on specific curricular assessments. For example, in 2011, NYCDOE’s Work Sampling System (WSS) curriculum piloted a survey with early childhood directors and principals to understand how assessment impacts early childhood leaders and their center’s overall practice.
To further understand the context in which center directors are working in, the working groups led two efforts:
created and disseminated a survey to all early childhood centers in NYC, and
- convened a meeting with important stakeholders to document child assessment requirements and related supports.
A brief survey was designed, to identify the center and classroom supports needed and challenges faced when implementing assessments. The survey was distributed electronically to early childcare providers across Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), Department of Education (DOE) and Department of Health (DOH) regulated settings. Two-hundred three directors responded to the survey citywide. All respondents directed sites serving pre-k (3 and/or 4-year olds), 37% of respondents also directed sites serving infant/toddler, and 25% of respondents directed sites serving school-age children.
Consistent with previous NYCDOE survey results, most respondents use Work Sampling System (WSS), Creative Curriculum Continuum/GOLD, or Child Observation Record (COR) as their curriculum and assessment tool. One major finding from these data is that many respondents confuse child assessment with program assessment (i.e. ECERS-R) or developmental screening (i.e. Brigance).
Respondents were asked to list the top three supports needed or the challenges their sites faced when implementing child assessments. Many respondents reported that there is a need for training for teachers/staff on how to use assessment tools (96%). The second major challenge identified is that teachers/staff need more professional development trainings on utilizing assessment data to inform their instruction and improve program quality (93%). Finally, directors reported that they would like support with understanding how to choose a child assessment tool (75%).
These data provide confirmation that directors need programmatic support, quality training, and funding to adequately support their Center’s needs. Directors have a vital role in creating the conditions for teachers, parents, and children to have positive experiences within the early childhood environment.
- Build a common understanding among DOE, ACS, and DOH about effective assessments
- Create information session for directors on using quantitative and qualitative information to drive decisions
- Pilot strategies for effective linkages between early childhood CBOs and elementary schools need to use assessment data to inform classroom practice
Best Practice: Shared Purpose, Common Language, and Valid Procedures
The role of assessment can be confusing when each stakeholder may hold a different interpretation of its meaning.
Keynote speaker, Dr. Christine McWayne, synthesized three purposes of assessment data to help clarify any confusion by suggesting that child assessment can: 1- to inform the research process, 2- to inform curriculum planning and instruction, 3- to inform program evaluation and policy-making. If child assessments can be used to inform the different bodies, then the real challenge is to create supportive conditions for teachers, directors, policy-makers, and researchers to use assessments for the right goals. If assessment is going to be successful, a close examination is needed to ensure that teachers are being prepared properly with a solid foundation in child development and assessment and supported to do this work. As the assessment process becomes part of a family’s everyday talk involving and empowering parents in the assessment process is crucial so parents can access the assessment information to advocate for their child (Caspe & Reyes, 2012; McWayne, 2012).
Child-level classroom based assessments can be a very useful tool in serving the diverse needs of children. By examining the needs of parents, teachers, and directors to successfully observe and assess young children, we heighten our awareness of how to implement assessment in meaningiful, effective ways. Common themes that emerged across all working groups included
1) the need to balance assessment time with instruction time, 2) the need for increased professional development training on assessments, and 3) the relationship among data, teacher performance, and child outcomes are important to explore.
As the field of early childhood moves in the direction of standards and assessment linking each group’s recommendations will be an important beginning. The policy and practice recommendations presented in this brief provide a small glimpse of how we can move this topic forward.
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