Assessment is Your Friend; Not Your Enemy! By Amanda Quesenberry

Amanda Quesenberry, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at Illinois State University in the School of Teaching and Learning. Her research interests include young children’s social and emotional development, educators’ professional development, and early childhood policy.

Every semester on the first day of the early childhood assessment class I teach, I ask teacher candidates to create a visual representation of what they think of when they hear the word, “assessment”. Oftentimes, candidates create dark images and use words like “stress” and “fear” in their interpretations of assessment. The sad reality is that these are probably words that young children may also associate with ‘assessment’ beginning at a very early age. When I am out in schools, I hear teachers and administrators tell tales of conducting repeated standardized tests with children beginning in kindergarten.

These practices generate great topics for conversations in the class I teach. Every semester at some point a teacher candidate will ask, “If we know that standardized tests aren’t good measures of what children know and are not good for children, then why are we required to use them.” Even though I know this question is coming, I never feel like I have a good response. The reason… I do not know why educational systems insist on conducting standardized tests earlier and earlier when time and time again research has shown that these tests are not accurate measures of what young children know and in some cases, can even be detrimental.

And yet, in the face of all of this negative press regarding assessment, I still feel that it is critical that educators learn to love assessment. I teach future educators that standardized tests are just one tiny piece of the wonderful world of assessment. When discussing how best to assess young children, I compare each child to a house with many windows. It is important to get a view inside each of the windows to get the best possible view of the whole child. Using only standardized test scores to determine how a child is progressing is like only looking in one small window. I stress that gathering information from a variety of sources can help provide a better perspective when making important decisions about child progress. So, let us look at the world of assessment that goes beyond tests. Below is a cycle that can help guide practices related to assessment.

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Let’s walk through each of the phases in this cycle, beginning with our purpose for assessing.

  1. Purpose: Before assessing, one should ask some basic questions, such as: Who do I need to focus on (e.g., a specific child; a group of children; the whole class, etc.)? What should I assess (e.g., developmental domain; subject/academic area)? When should I assess (e.g., during which activities/times of day)? Why am I assessing (e.g., what do I hope to learn, is the assessment related to a specific lesson or learning objective)? Determining the purpose of assessment will drive the rest of the process.
  2. Gathering Information: Teachers gather information through observation/documentation, work samples, communicating with others, etc. The information gathered depends on the purpose of assessment. To the greatest extent possible, the information should be gathered objectively (i.e., only the facts- what is seen/heard). For example, if a teacher wants to learn more about a students’ reading fluency, s/he might observe the child reading and document using a running record. S/he might also take an audio recording of the child reading. It would be important to gather this information at regular intervals over time to show progress. There are numerous ways to gather information. The most important thing to remember is to gather information that will demonstrate child progress. Other considerations include using strategies that align with learning objectives and that are practical.
  3. Compiling/Summarizing: During this step, teachers begin to make sense of the data by organizing the information in a logical way. Teachers can use color-coding, folders, binders, post-it notes, etc. to help with organization. It is important to organize information regularly (i.e., at least a couple times a week). Staying organized will help teachers see patterns in the information. In addition to staying organized, most teachers use some sort of system (e.g., portfolios, checklists, etc.) to determine how students are progressing toward goals/standards.
  4. Interpreting: At this point, teachers look at the data that they have collected and use their judgment to make meaning of the information. This is a critical step that leads to action- I like to refer to this step as the, “So what?” step. At this point you should be asking yourself, “So what does all of this data mean?”
  5. Planning: All teachers plan- some better than others. However, not all teachers make decisions about planning based on the ongoing assessment data that they have collected on their students. Yikes! I refer to this as ‘building the ship at sea’ – clearly not the best idea! Our teaching (and planning) should be based on what we know about our students; scaffolding student learning through differentiated instruction. Now, I ask, how can you do that if you have no idea where your students are at or the goals you hope they can attain? Let’s see, how could we determine where are students are at in order to plan and set goals??? Ah yes, through ongoing assessment!!!
  6. Implementation: Once we develop a plan we MUST implement the plan! You would be amazed at how many teachers get to this point in the process and everything falls apart. Of course it is important to be flexible in your implementation- recognizing that some adjustments may need to be made along the way. However, if you do not teach the students, they will not make progress!

 Phew, you are probably thinking that once you implement the plan you are done, right? WRONG!!! When implementing the plan, (actually as you are planning) you should already be thinking ahead to the first few steps in the process. For example, how can I assess to determine if the students are meeting the learning objectives in this lesson? Are there students who I need to focus on when assessing? Why is this lesson important and how will it help me see if students are making progress or not?

 And so, that is why it is called “a cycle”, because it is never-ending. As Louis L’Amour said, “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished; that will be the beginning.” 

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