Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

With the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge stressing kindergarten entry assessment among its goals, the question of how to assess young children in a developmentally appropriate manner has been getting a lot of attention. In its successful Early Learning Challenge application, Massachusetts committed to establishing a system of developmentally appropriate assessment of young children, birth to third grade, including kindergarten entry assessment.

Young children learn episodically. They don’t care how they do on tests, and they are far too young for the paper-and-pencil tests common for assessing older children’s progress. Young children’s development stretches across multiple domains – language, numeracy, social-emotional, cognitive, fine and gross motor — all of which have an impact on their performance in school. Done effectively, assessment can inform instruction, provide valuable information to parents and help the state monitor children’s progress.

A recent position paper from the Council of Chief State School Officers looks at kindergarten readiness assessment and makes several recommendations.

“Early child assessments conducted prior to, at the start of, and during kindergarten can be useful for a number of purposes if done well,” the report states. “Kindergarten readiness assessments should be used to directly support children’s development and academic achievement to improve educational outcomes. To do so, kindergarten readiness assessment efforts should adhere to the following principles:

The recommendations dovetail with the Early Learning Challenge application, which sought kindergarten readiness assessment that is “aligned with the State’s Early Learning and Development Standards and covers all Essential Domains of School Readiness.”

“Despite abundant complexities, the consensus of child development experts and early childhood practitioners is that school readiness is a compilation of numerous skills and capacities that vary within a population of children,” the chief state school officers’ report states. “The National Education Goals Panel stated that school readiness encompasses a range of child development domains, including (a) physical well-being and motor development, (b) social−emotional development, (c) approaches toward learning, (d) language and emergent literacy, and (e) cognitive skills, including mathematics. Moreover, children’s progress in these developmental domains is both independent and highly interrelated. Unfortunately, most kindergarten assessment tools focus almost exclusively on language, literacy, and mathematics. Yet, as noted, there is substantial agreement about the importance of social-emotional development of young children before, during, and after the transition to formal schooling, and this domain is predictive of academic progress in other domains.

“Moreover, children’s linguistic and cultural differences, as well as differences in children with special learning needs and abilities, must be considered in kindergarten assessments. Unfortunately, there are few assessment tools that capture contextual aspects of children’s early learning and development, including their cultural background, linguistic diversity, and special needs. In sum, it is important that kindergarten assessment go beyond just measuring cognitive and literacy skills; focus on a broad range of child developmental domains; and recognize children’s language, culture, and special learning needs.”

Assessments, appropriately done, serve to guide instruction, give important information to parents and help states track children’s progress.

“The need for information about the status of children’s development and learning at the start of formal schooling is clear. However, while there is a growing volume of large-scale kindergarten readiness assessment efforts in states and local communities, few resources have been invested in developing assessment tools that address the full range of domains of early learning and child development, and the multiple purposes of such assessments,” the report concludes.

“We know that waiting until the end of third grade to acquire a systematic picture of how well children are learning is a mistake. We must use early childhood assessments to drive efforts to provide enriched, engaging, and intensive learning opportunities to every child, and prevent or minimize achievement disparities right from the start. Accordingly, it is vital that a commensurate level of resources be invested in developing improved assessment tools for young children. With proper resources and informed leadership, states can implement kindergarten readiness assessments as a key resource in a nationwide effort to support healthy development, early learning, and school success for all young children.”