Building More Equitable Pre-K Assessment Systems: Lessons from States

By Samuel Maves, Meghan McCormick

This commentary was originally published by New America.

While Congress continues to debate whether to pass Build Back Better and make public pre-K universally available, many states are making investments to strengthen the quality of their existing early learning programs. A key part of this work involves efforts to implement pre-K assessment systems that measure children’s skills and classroom quality easily, equitably, and on a large scale. Current assessment tools can be burdensome to educators, biased against children from marginalized groups, and unable to facilitate comparisons within and across schools. Having ready access to better assessment information not only helps policymakers understand whether pre-K investments are paying off, but also gives teachers and parents the information they need to effectively support young children as they transition to kindergarten.

States, however, face a range of challenges building these types of assessment systems. New AmericaMDRC, and the Alliance for Early Success recently convened state pre-K advocates and policymakers from a diverse set of states to discuss their experiences doing this work. Here are some of the lessons they shared:

Balance the needs of all stakeholders when improving measurement tools. States shared that they feel tension between designing pre-K assessment systems that are useful to policymakers and ensuring that data are also helpful to educators and parents. For teachers, the assessment process generates insights about children’s learning and development—information that can be used to inform teaching practices and to individualize instruction to the specific needs of each student. And when parents have detailed information about their children’s learning, they can be directly engaged in their education and better able to support their development at home.

State policymakers and advocates from Indiana emphasized the need for state assessment systems to provide regular, real-time information to teachers to help them make decisions about how to support different students throughout the school year. At the same time, policymakers want to access data that can tell them about the gains students are making in learning domains like math, language, and literacy during the year. In order to marry these two interests, Indiana is working to identify tools that can be embedded into instruction and collected by teachers, but also capture a range of skills in both the fall and spring of the pre-K year.

In Virginia, state policymakers have found success in leveraging technology to collect data on a statewide scale in both kindergarten and pre-K settings, allowing them to access assessment information more readily. However, Virginia recognizes the need for teachers to be involved in the assessment process in order to empower them and inform their instructional practices. To maintain teachers’ participation in the assessment process, state policymakers selected measurement tools that require direct assessment and observation by educators, rather than tools that permit students to complete assessments independently on computers. Virginia is focused on using measurement tools that teachers can easily use and understand, allowing them to access critical information about their student’s learning. The state is also aligning classroom curricula options and assessments to support coherence across learning activities, standards, and assessments..

Work closely with local leaders and stakeholders. In some states, school districts are responsible for making most decisions related to public pre-K programs. Often, this creates a situation where pre-K assessment tools vary from community to community—complicating state efforts to build systems that facilitate comparisons between pre-K programs and communities on a state or national level.

During the convening, many states shared about how strong local control over pre-K decision making created situations where districts could opt out of statewide early childhood assessments. States shared that local districts’ reasons for opting out were varied, with resource constraints and misunderstandings about how data would be used being two main explanations. As a result, some states are now focusing on open discussions with local leaders about why statewide assessment is needed and how data serves the specific needs of each community. These conversations are important opportunities to develop a shared understanding about how to collect and use student assessment data in ways that work for states and local districts.

Better align pre-K assessment with families’ values. States reported that the perspectives of parents and families have not typically been considered when deciding how to implement assessment systems for young children. This is especially true of racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically marginalized groups, who have been almost entirely left out of the process. As a result, the types of skills that children are assessed on do not always align with what parents from underrepresented groups value. For example, by focusing heavily on assessments to understand children’s English literacy skills, current tools often fail to understand whether early learning programs are supporting—or hindering—multilingual learners’ continued development in their home language. To address this issue, some states are taking action to understand the needs and values of parents and to better incorporate their perspectives into stronger pre-K assessment systems.

For example, representatives from New Mexico highlighted their focus on authentically collaborating with tribal communities to build on their perspectives and strengthen measurement tools for young learners. The New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department will soon conduct focus groups with families to better understand how they define success in pre-K in their communities. State policymakers will use this information to make improvements to pre-K assessments that reflect the needs and values of families from tribal communities. Other states should establish similar connections with families from marginalized groups and more meaningfully incorporate their perspectives into the pre-K assessment system.

States and districts continue to expand access to publicly funded early learning programs, pre-K assessment systems can be an effective tool for improving instruction, supporting family engagement, and understanding how pre-K is impacting kids. As Congress considers historic investments in early learning, policymakers can learn from states’ experiences to begin strengthening their own assessment systems now.

Thank you to Jenna Conway from the Virginia Department of Education, Maureen Weber and Nicole Norvell from Early Learning Indiana, and Jovanna Archuleta from the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department for contributing to this blog.