Understanding Where All Kids Are

Why It’s Critical to Improve Pre-K Assessments to Support Equitable Early Learning

By JoAnn Hsueh, Meghan McCormick

This commentary was originally published by New America.

Hundreds of thousands of young children have spent almost two years in a global pandemic experiencing significant disruptions in early learning, with children from racially and socioeconomically marginalized groups disproportionately affected. As a result, pre-K programs are facing unprecedented challenges serving children who are coming to school with a very wide range of academic and social-emotional skills and in need of individualized supports. Yet, the lack of systematic pre-K data being collected on a wide scale undermines efforts to understand the long-term impacts of the pandemic and to strengthen fragile early learning systems.

As Congress considers historic investments to expand universal, high-quality pre-K, there is a pressing need to enhance the quality and relevance of information captured about young children’s classroom experiences, learning, and development. Here we summarize the reasons why this should be a priority and highlight examples of how researchers, districts, and states are taking steps to make assessments more equitable, useful, and actionable.

Assessments should be free from racial bias. Although there are a number of widely used measures of classroom quality and children’s early skills, few were explicitly designed with racial equity in mind. Many assessments were developed and validated using samples of mostly white children from middle- to upper-income families. Researchers have found significant bias in some of these measures, making racial disparities in classroom quality and key skills, like vocabulary, appear substantially larger than they really are. For example, some studies have found that images and words in the assessments were less likely to reflect the lived experiences of children of color and more likely to reflect white children’s general knowledge. Biases like these can risk perpetuating systemic inequities and mischaracterizing the classroom experiences and competencies of children from historically marginalized groups.

There are examples of assessments that more clearly center racial equity. For example, using a large, national sample, researchers found that Black children’s early oral narrative skills were highly predictive of literacy skills by age 5. These types of storytelling skills, however, are often not measured regularly in pre-K. By developing assessments that capture a more complete picture of children’s skills, it would be possible to identify strengths and areas of growth for all of our youngest learners.

Assessments should predict child outcomes. At the same time, many existing student and classroom assessments do not consistently predict children’s outcomes in the short or long term. A number of recent studies have found no association between widely used assessments of classroom quality and gains in children’s development. And it has been difficult to evaluate the lasting impacts of pre-K programs because many existing assessments only capture a small subset of children’s skills—such as identifying letters and numbers—which all children quickly learn once they enter elementary school. These assessments do not measure competencies such as problem solving, comprehension, and critical thinking, which may be key to longer-term academic achievement.

To learn more about how early care and education can best support children, it is critical to measure a broader range of children’s skills. Working with the University of Michigan, Harvard, and the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Department of Early Childhood, our team found that the benefits of the BPS prekindergarten program were more likely to be sustained for skills like children’s conceptual and problem-solving math and vocabulary skills than for skills like letter, word, and number recognition. Research like this demonstrates the importance of investing in assessment tools that capture a broader swath of skills, and the classroom experiences that promote them, to better understand children’s short- and long-term learning and development.

Teachers, schools, and parents should be able to use information from assessments in real-time to support children’s learning. Achieving this goal can seem challenging when existing assessments take a substantial amount of time to complete and have high administration and training costs. It can then take months to process and analyze the resulting data, which makes the information less relevant for guiding individualized instruction directly after the assessment occurs. And, more often than not, teachers receive little support interpreting these data and using it to make decisions. Parents are also hungry for information about whether children are achieving key developmental milestones, as well as their key strengths and areas for growth. By having direct access to this type of information, parents can work to support children at home to build on the skills they are learning at school.

There are recent examples of programs, districts, and states investing in innovative approaches to collect student data so that it can be useful to educators and parents. For example, Guilford County, North Carolina, collects a tablet-based assessment to capture pre-K students’ literacy skills at several points during the year. Teachers receive instantaneous information about different dimensions of children’s literacy skills, which they can use to individualize instruction and monitor children’s learning over time. The state of Virginia has also been at the forefront of collecting technology-enabled early learning assessments to gather real-time information about students’ skills to support teachers’ instructional practices and share information with parents. These types of advances provide exciting opportunities for more seamlessly integrating assessments into instruction, making the data accessible and usable by teachers and parents and better supporting students’ learning and development.

Continued discussions of pandemic learning loss and a “lost year” have exhausted parents and educators alike. With sweeping investments to expand and strengthen pre-K systems on the horizon, part of the answer may be to develop more cohesive assessment systems that measure classroom quality and children’s skills. Stronger equity-informed and culturally sensitive assessments that generate direct insights for teachers and parents are a critical step to laying the foundation for equitable early learning for young children.