Assessment in early childhood programs has a functionally different purpose from what we traditionally think of as assessment in K-12 school settings. While assessment provides information on children’s academic learning, just as in K-12 settings, early childhood assessment looks holistically at individual children and groups of children across developmental domains.

In addition, early childhood assessment identifies the need for intervention or support services due to developmental delays or other risk factors influencing typical development. Finally, assessment supports programs in evaluating the effectiveness of learning environments, curriculum and instructional practices.

A comprehensive assessment system within an early childhood program should include formative and summative assessments, measures to screen for potential developmental or academic concerns, and measures of the quality of the learning environment. 

Implementation of a comprehensive assessment system supports each individual child by getting to know his or her strengths, needs and interests, while providing information for groups of children about how well the early childhood program is supporting children in meeting desired outcomes. 

High-quality assessment systems are developmentally, culturally and linguistically appropriate for the children being assessed; respect and include families and children in meaningful ways; include assessment measures that are valid, reliable, bias-free and ethical; and enhance the teaching and learning occurring in the early childhood program. When selecting an assessment system, schools should evaluate the tools and processes to ensure alignment with high-quality practices. 

The Case for Authentic Assessment

Standardized assessment measures are often criticized for being a single point-in-time measurement, highly influenced by external factors such as hunger, sleepiness, attention span, level of test-taking confidence and reading comprehension. These concerns are further exacerbated in the early childhood education setting due to the age and developmental levels of children. While several developmentally appropriate standardized assessments exist for the preschool years (ages 3-5), such norm-referenced measures should be used as one piece of the assessment puzzle, rather than interpreted as representing the whole picture of a child’s development and learning.

Ongoing, authentic assessment captures data on children’s learning and development over time, across settings, and through multiple methods.

A popular form of authentic assessment is portfolio assessment. Portfolios gather assessment data on young children from multiple sources: teachers’ anecdotal notes, parent and teacher observations of development, children’s work samples, developmental checklists, running records, language samples, etc. These portfolios then provide a robust and clearer picture of an individual child’s development, and can track the progression of developmental and academic skills over time. 

Portfolios have the added benefit of engaging children in understanding their own progress. Children as young as 2 ½ years old can assist with selecting work to be included in their portfolios, choosing items that demonstrate their understanding of concepts. Providing opportunities for children to select portfolio pieces also allows us to probe children’s thinking about their work. Children enjoy reviewing their portfolios and noticing their progress over time, supporting development of metacognition, or “thinking about thinking.” As children examine how their work has changed over time, teachers can facilitate children’s thinking about their work by modeling thinking aloud, asking open-ended questions, and commenting on children’s thinking.

Improving Outcomes for Children

Assessment doesn’t end with merely collecting information. The collection and use of information about children’s development and learning informs instruction, individualization and scaffolding of learning experiences, and communication of children’s progress to them and their families.

Early childhood teachers need to be trained in how to analyze and use the data collected from child assessment to make decisions about their classroom instruction, curriculum and learning environments.

Interpretation and analysis of data usually involves comparison of the child’s data to standards or expectations based on typical child development for the child’s age. Most states in the United States, as well as several countries around the world, have developed or adopted standards or guidelines for young children’s learning and development. These standards focus on what young children should know and be able to do at certain age levels. When establishing an early childhood program, schools should identify the expected child outcomes as a result of participation in the program. These outcomes are the results children are expected to gain, and are often aligned to state or national early childhood standards.

To improve outcomes for children, early childhood programs should engage in analysis of data multiple times throughout the year. To evaluate a child’s current performance, child assessment data is compared to benchmarks or standards for development. To evaluate a child’s progress, assessment data is analyzed to compare past performance to current performance.  

As teachers examine and analyze data, they can look for patterns in the data that may indicate areas of strength or those needing extra support. Data provides information on children’s interests, needs and strengths that can guide curriculum planning to meet the goals and objectives that support desired child outcomes. For example, teachers might analyze data with a focus on a particular developmental domain, specific children in the class, the whole class, or classroom challenges. Analysis of data helps to identify whether additional data is needed and how it might be collected, ideas to extend children’s interest in curricular content or whether it is time to move on to another concept, and the appropriate instructional strategies to support each child’s development and learning.

Using Child Assessment for Program Evaluation

While the primary purpose of child assessment is to gather information about children’s learning and developmental progress, it can also be used to monitor program quality and effectiveness. Aggregating data across groups of children, whether it is for a classroom, an age group, or the entire early childhood program, provides data on how well children are meeting the expected outcomes identified by the program. Schools want to ensure that children are learning and the program is effective. 

For example, a school may be interested in knowing how many of the three year old children enrolled are proficient in a particular standard or benchmark for early literacy, such as phonemic awareness. If the school finds that data shows many of the children are not yet proficient, then further examination of potential causes can be explored. Perhaps the curriculum hasn’t had many activities focused on building phonemic awareness, or the instructional strategies are developmentally inappropriate for the children. Perhaps the teachers lack confidence in their ability to teach phonemic awareness through play-based learning.

Using child assessment data can help to uncover where the program is being effective in producing desired child outcomes and where it needs to focus improvement efforts. Then the program can delve into possible causes for the current outcomes in order to sustain program strengths and to implement strategies for program improvement. Modifications to program components, such as teacher professional development, curriculum, instructional strategies, learning environments and program resources, can be intentionally made in order to improve program effectiveness and ensure child learning and development.

High-quality early childhood assessment systems can make a profound impact on the quality of teaching and learning and improved outcomes for young children. Teachers who engage in analyzing and using assessment data to inform their curriculum, instruction and learning environments have a deeper understanding of child development and how to help individual children learn and develop. Programs that engage in evaluation and continuous improvement through the use of assessment data are better able to make informed decisions about improvement efforts and the impact of those efforts. Ultimately, children in these programs are well-positioned for success in their later school experiences.


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Holly King, Ph.D.
Holly King, Ph.D.,  is senior vice president of Evaluation Services for Cognia, overseeing all aspects of accreditation and certification services offered to PK-12 schools around the world. Over her career, Dr. King has directed education programs in private, non-profit, and school district settings.  She has held adjunct faculty positions in Early Childhood Education for eight years at three colleges, teaching adult learners in online and face-to-face settings, and is an adjunct faculty member for the Master’s in Organizational Leadership program at the University of Denver. She also serves as Affiliate Research Faculty for Antioch University's Ph.D. in Leadership and Change in quantitative methods. To her leadership roles, Dr. King brings expertise in best practices in early learning and K-6 education; strategic planning; leadership development; quality assurance; data analysis; health, mental health, and disabilities services; family support; and professional development and coaching. Dr. King holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change from Antioch University, as well as master degrees in Early Childhood Education and Leadership and Change.