Where State Pre-K Assessment Stands

Topic: Assessment, Outcomes, Preschool

Assessment of children participating in state-funded pre-K programs has been highlighted recently, in part due to the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funding competition’s focus on assessment strategies for our youngest learners. In response, Educational Testing Service (ETS) has submitted to the field State Pre-K Assessment Policies: Issues and Status, a timely report on the status of policies for the assessment of learning outcomes at the pre-K level.  Debra J. Ackerman and Richard J. Coley, the researchers behind this report, answer the following questions:

  1. “Which learning outcome measures, if any, are specified in Pre-K policies?
  2. Do these specified measures fall under the categories of direct assessments, observation checklists or scales, or a combination of both assessment approaches?
  3. How much choice do Pre-K providers have in selecting the measures to be used in their classrooms?
  4. How frequently are learning outcome measures to be administered and reported?” (p. 3).

Detailed in several easy-to-navigate charts, the authors report state-specific data regarding the type of assessment required in policies, the specific name(s) of the assessment(s) required, the role of program choice in selecting an assessment, and the frequency of administration and reporting on these measures. Although the data shows variation in the requirements for early childhood assessments for state pre-K programs, several trends were noted.

First, the authors found a preference for a universal measure or a limited menu of options providing choice to the local provider. There is also an indication that states are mostly administering assessments and reporting at least two times per year, although several states do not specify how often child outcomes should be measured and reported.  Lastly, only a small number of states report policies that require a type of direct assessment.  This type of assessment is generally an individually administered assessment that is norm-referenced and provides opportunities to aggregate data and compare results over time. On the other hand, more states require observation checklists and scales. These assessments are generally conducted during the regular school experience requiring some observation and recording of children’s skills by the classroom teacher and are used to inform instruction.  Furthermore, eight programs reported policies requiring a combination of approaches while 19 programs allowed individual providers to choose which measures to use.  This report provides policymakers with data on the landscape of early childhood assessments so that stakeholders can evaluate the options that other states are utilizing and perhaps identify new assessments or approaches to consider.  It also provides some guidance for choosing an early childhood assessment and provides questions for key stakeholders to consider in this selection.  The NIEER policy report, Preschool Assessment: A Guide to Developing a Balanced Approach, recommends that the measures for assessment be selected by a qualified professional to ensure they meet acceptable psychometric standards as well as being developmentally appropriate for the children being assessed.

A developmentally appropriate assessment new to the arena that meets the criteria of being reliable and valid is the newly available Early Learning Scale (ELS) developed by researchers at NIEER – myself, Judi Stevenson-Garcia, Ellen Frede, and Kim Brenneman. The ELS is an observation-based performance assessment which was developed in response to a request by educators for a concise and manageable tool that is also comprehensive and based on standards.  The ELS is currently in use by pre-K teachers in West Virginia (as noted in the ETS report), among other places, and provides programs with an assessment system capable of informing instruction and making a direct impact on teaching and learning.  More information on the ELS is available in this NIEER technical report, and the ELS will be available for purchase in April from Lakeshore Learning Materials.

In conjunction with the ETS report reviewed here, readers are encouraged to peruse Developing Kindergarten Readiness and Other Large-Scale Assessment Systems, a recent report from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).  This report by Kyle Snow provides further guidance for policymakers in building an effective assessment system for young children.  Detailed considerations and caveats are provided on the selection, administration, and utilization of large-scale assessment systems for young children.

Assessments are vital and useful tools in high-quality preschool education classrooms as they allow programs to chart progress and make improvements. In addition, they are a key component not only of program quality but also for understanding and supporting young children’s development. However, assessments should be used with caution and should not stand alone when making high-stakes decisions about the future of an individual program or child. It is therefore necessary that pre-K providers to be knowledgeable about assessments in general as well as to have access to reliable and valid assessment tools. The ETS report State Pre-K Assessment Policies: Issues and Status, as well as the other resources I’ve mentioned here, will help policymakers and practitioners make important decisions about assessments.

– Shannon Riley-Ayers, Assistant Research Professor, NIEER