Skip to main content

Askwith Education Forum Assesses Early Childhood Assessment

The notion of testing preschool aged children is met by many educators with concerns about test validity, quality, fairness, and effectiveness of assessment. But, according to the panel at the Askwith Education Forum, "Early Childhood Assessment: To Test or Not to Test"-- which included Professors Catherine Snow and Jack Shonkoff, Dean Kathleen McCartney, and Rosemary Chalk , director of the Board on Children, Youth, and Families at The National Academies -- well-planned and implemented assessment can provide valuable information about children's development and outcomes.

Calling early childhood assessment a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" phenomenon, Snow introduced guidelines for instituting a well-designed assessment from her latest book, Early Childhood Assessment. The book incorporates the results of the 2006 National Research Council study on developmental outcomes and assessment of young children. The committee involved Snow and McCartney, who helped identify important outcomes for children from birth to age five, as well as the quality and purposes of different techniques and instruments for developmental assessments. The consensus of the committee was that well-designed and implemented assessment can actually benefit children, but flawed testing can result in harm, Snow said.

Among one of the biggest requirements in implementing assessment is considering the big picture. "Assessment is part of a system and if you are not thinking about it as a system, then something is wrong," Snow said. The system also requires examining funding, training, minimizing the burden of assessment on students and schools, and integrating health concerns of children as well. Assessment should be designed so that it actually compliments other parts of the system and improves service delivery to children.

"We need to think of assessment as a way to improve child outcomes," Snow said, pointing out that assessments can monitor children's progress, improve instruction, and screen for development risks at a young age.

"I think the guidelines are mostly the right ones," McCartney said, highlighting the report's identification of assessment as being purposeful and the need for systematicity in the big picture.

McCartney acknowledged the need for "special care" when approaching early childhood assessment, but at the same time, wondered how practical the advice might be and whether the systems are actually in place to support such assessment.

"I don't think anyone approaches testing without mixed emotions," Shonkoff said, expanding the discussion to the overarching political problem with testing.

Although Shonkoff thinks accountability is critical in early childhood development assessment, he foresees the issue of assessment as a much bigger political problem that requires honest evaluation -- something that he sees as detrimental to assessment success. As more and more researchers and policymakers turn a blind eye to the reality of assessment's success, otherresearchers, policymakers, and practitioners are being prohibited from doing what's truly best for children and schools.

In true assessment and evaluation, Shonkoff said, we need to "make it safe to fail."


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles