Not all Assessments are Created Equal
Recent debate over Head Start’s National Reporting System got me thinking about the challenges of assessing what three and four year olds know and what they have learned from their pre-k teachers. Early Stories sums up the NRS debate with some great examples.
Not being a Head Start teacher myself, I have never administered the NRS. I am required, however, to use the Brigance screening in the beginning of each school year to identify developmental delays. While some of the sections are helpful (e.g., following two and three step directions; fine motor and gross motor evaluations), many of the questions seem to measure a child’s exposure to certain words and objects rather than development. For example, in one section Brigance asks the child to identify a picture of a tractor. I personally fail to see how the inability of a four year old from the inner city to identify a tractor indicates any sort of delay in her development. The test also requires children to identify several body parts including the jaw and ankle, a stretch for any four year old in my opinion.
I think my ideal pre-k assessment tool would breakdown the four areas of child development (i.e., social/emotional; physical; cognitive; and language) and be able to measure each of those components regardless of a child’s background. Unlike the Brigance screening, such an assessment may have to be partially or entirely performance-based since a child may not reveal the full extent of his problem-solving or language skills in a single one-to-one interaction at the start of the year. A teacher can, however, observe a child within the context of play with materials and areas the child has chosen.
Creative Curriculum’s assessment system is entirely performance-based, uses the “developmental continuum” to assess all four areas of development, and is both the most comprehensive and least biased assessment I have seen. While it can be quite helpful in providing information about your students, it is not necessarily the most accessible data for kindergarten teachers to use the following year, so I do think the more traditional assessments (e.g., letter identification, book handling checklist) have a role to play.
The interesting thing about all of this is that, while I criticize the Brigance test and other standardized assessments we have used, nobody from the district or state has ever discussed my children’s test scores with me either as a reflection of my effectiveness as a teacher or my students’ readiness for kindergarten. We have adopted a state-mandated, performance-based assessment system which some district resource teachers say will be used to inform decisions about state funding. But in the three years that I’ve been in the classroom, all the assessments sent “downtown” just seem like mounds of paperwork being thrown into an abyss, never to be referred to again. I certainly use my assessments both to tailor my instruction to meet student needs and to reflect on my own growth as a teacher. Yet the only feedback I receive from administrators and district personnel focus on their observations of my classroom teaching.
So, I’m not sure whether the feds or New Jersey have got assessment and accountability down pat in pre-k. I think policymakers need to collaborate with educators as they rethink all assessments. In the end, teacher quality directly impacts student outcomes, and teachers should be held accountable for their students’ growth. But, first, we need to agree on what things are important to measure and how they should be measured. Effective programs, like pre-k, deserve effective assessment, not just assessment for assessment’s sake.