Ideas and Evidence
Can Pre-K Assessments Improve Early Learning Programs? Listening to Teacher Perspectives
This blog post was originally published by New America.
Early childhood educators, policymakers, and researchers agree that systematically collecting assessments of children’s learning and development is one approach that pre-K programs can use to help teachers provide better instruction. When teachers have easy-to-understand information about what children know when they enter pre-K—and how those skills are changing across time—they can more effectively tailor instruction rather than teaching skills that are much too advanced or providing content that simply repeats what children already know.
But authentically integrating assessments into regular instruction can be challenging for teachers. Collecting assessments can be onerous and time-consuming and take time away from learning if not done well. Teachers may lack real-time access to the information from assessments that helps them tailor instruction and better serve individual children. Existing assessments that focus largely on literacy and math skills do not capture the full range of competencies and assets—like problem solving, creativity, curiosity, and storytelling—that are important for children’s long-term success. And without that type of broader information, teachers may face challenges effectively engaging parents by highlighting children’s strengths and areas for growth.
There is a clear need to strengthen pre-K assessment systems to be more equitable, relevant, and useful. Centering the perspectives of early childhood educators is a key step in achieving this goal. Doing so can ensure that efforts to build better measurement tools are responsive to the needs of the pre-K teachers who collect and use these assessments in their day-to-day interactions with children. In the summer and fall of last year, 14 pre-K teachers primarily serving children from socioeconomically and racially marginalized groups across the country participated in conversations about assessments and instruction in early learning. Here are some of the key perspectives they shared:
Assessments are useful when they help early childhood educators tailor their instruction for different children. The majority of teachers that participated in these conversations did find the assessments they collect on children to be somewhat helpful. One pre-K teacher reported a typical approach as the following, “We give them literacy assessments and things to kind of find out what level they’re on and meet them at that level and bring them up, and we pull children out during those first couple of weeks of school for one-on-ones and do an informal assessment of where they are, what they can do, what they can’t do. And then that drives the instruction.” Other educators agreed with the value of assessments, noting, “The more I know about my students and what they know, the more effective I can be,” and, “There is a new variation at this age range, sometimes we get three-year-olds and, you know, a kid may turn six in my classroom […] a kid is either performing ahead of pace or is not keeping up with pace […] it helps having a standard measure.”
However, teachers did not like one-size-fits-all approaches to assessing children’s learning. As one said, “High-quality documentation needs to be individualized based on the child. It also looks at exactly what the child is doing and how they’re doing it.” Another teacher reported using varied types of assessment formats to capture different children’s skills, recognizing that “some kids are good with tests, and others are not.”
Assessments are useful for pre-K teachers when supported by a data-driven ecosystem. Teachers had different relationships with school administrators and pre-K center directors and this affected whether they found assessment data useful or not. Some teachers reported that they valued assessments because their principals liked using a data-driven approach to making decisions. One teacher shared, “My principal is huge on data, very big on data. She wants everything to be data-driven. So that’s why the school is huge on assessments. She can come in and ask how this student did on this unit, and I can pull up my Excel.”
But others had the opposite experience where administrators had less firsthand knowledge about what was happening in particular classrooms, affecting teachers’ own views on the utility of assessment data. As one teacher said, “She [Director] doesn’t know what’s going on in our classroom because she has to go to all the other pre-K classes and is in our room once a year for like five minutes. She doesn’t know our students or anything that’s going on. So I feel like her coming in and telling us—oh, this is the assessment you need to do—is pointless.” Overall, teachers’ general views on the assessments appeared to be shaped in part by the perspectives of leadership at their center or school.
Assessments need to prioritize measuring social-emotional skills. Teachers were frustrated that many formal assessments they were doing seemed to be focused solely on literacy and math skills: “DIBELS [a widely-used literacy assessment] shows us their reading level. iReady [another assessment system] shows us their math and that’s really all we focus on in pre-K assessment: reading and math.”
Teachers were actually more interested in children developing social-emotional and behavioral skills in pre-K that they would need to succeed in kindergarten and wanted better assessments of those competencies. For example, one teacher voiced, “I think the basis of this age is it’s so important for them to learn social-emotional skills. If they don’t know how to temper their emotions, then they’re always in a heightened state. And even as they continue through the grade levels, they’re not going to be able to focus because they’re so caught up in all their emotions. So really working with them on how to problem solve and resolve conflict—and to understand whether they’re developing those skills—is really important.” Another teacher voiced a similar perspective noting that, “I hope that they [children] learn, for me, that the social skills need to come first. They need to learn to love themselves, to gain knowledge that they’re able to do things, to find that love for learning and want to move forward.”
Assessments can help facilitate communication between teachers and parents. Teachers recognized that some parents were wary of assessments if they associated them with receiving negative information or “bad news” about their child. “One thing I had to learn, too—parents don’t want to be at work all day and still come home to bad news. So, I always tell them something good that their child did first,” shared one teacher.
Teachers also wanted to share positive information with parents in a format that helped them to build better relationships with families. As one teacher explained, “I want families to understand that we’re looking at everyone coming in […] some have social-emotional [issues] or speech delays or are falling outside of widely held expectations. […] So, making sure the family feels supported and they understand the reason we do assessments is not to alienate their kids but to support their kids with the information we have.”
Using assessments to engage parents could also be one strategy for getting better information about what is happening outside of school and could affect learning and development: “Their [children’s] home life impacts their learning. You can always tell when something is happening at home that really affects them in school.” Teachers noted that future assessment tools could include some format for sharing information with teachers about children’s home lives and experiences outside of school. One teacher shared, “I wish that we could know more [about students] when they’re coming in. Have they been in daycare before? Have they been in any kind of structured classroom before, like away from their parents?”
As more children gain access to pre-K, there is a clear need to strengthen existing assessment tools so that they can help teachers provide high-quality instruction for young children. Incorporating teacher perspectives and experiences into that work can yield tools that respond to the priorities of educators and are thus well set up to improve early learning over time.