Using Assessments to Create More Equitable Early Learning Systems: What Do Pre-K Leaders Think?

This issue focus was originally published as a blog post by New America.

Pre-K programs need access to robust assessment data to create high-quality learning environments. Having information on the full range of children’s skills helps teachers individualize instruction, allows programs to ensure that children are making important gains across the school year, and helps policymakers make better investments in early learning systems.

Pre-K center directors, principals, and other program-level administrators are important decision makers in the assessment process and have a unique perspective on what tools and data are needed to make pre-K systems work effectively at multiple levels. In their day-to-day work, directors must support teachers in using assessments effectively in the classroom and sharing information with parents. Simultaneously, administrators must ensure that their work to measure children’s skills aligns with various requirements from funders and policymakers.

Over the past several months a team from MDRC and Substantial spoke with seven pre-K leaders—including center directors and principals—about how to make assessments more useful, equitable, and effective. Here’s what they shared:

It is crucial to make assessments easier for teachers to administer.

The pre-K administrators who participated in discussions all agreed that the assessment process can be a burden on teachers and their ability to provide quality instruction. Multiple center directors noted that there is an important balance between collecting high-quality data on children’s skills and maximizing instructional time. “Administering the assessments can be laborious,” said one director, but “it’s worth it because they get to tailor instruction to meet individual children’s needs right where they are.”

However, multiple center directors thought that more could be done to relieve the burden of assessments on teachers—“assessment fatigue is real.” One administrator was adamant that “there has to be a way to deliver that type of assessment in a way that doesn’t take as much time away from teachers.” Another director noted that time constraints also take away from the amount of data that the tools can provide. “What I hear mostly is that the length of the tool can be challenging,” she said. Because of this, the number of domains that could be measured was limited: “You can’t measure everything.”

Several administrators took it upon themselves to reduce the burden of assessments on their teaching staff. One administrator explained, “From the organization level, what I do for my teachers is I print all their assessment protocols for them. I make sure they have all the materials for the assessments prepared already, so all they have to do is really focus on administering the assessments.” While many administrators reported providing these types of supports for teachers, different programs have varying levels of resources to devote to this work, leaving room for assessment developers to reduce assessment burden universally.

It is important to make pre-K assessment systems more equitable.

Most pre-K administrators agreed that pre-K assessment systems needed to more equitably reflect the skills of children from racially, linguistically, and socioeconomically marginalized groups. Many recognized biases within existing child-level assessments but were less sure about how to eliminate them. One center director shared that dual language learners at their program—no matter what language—were routinely scoring lower on assessments than their classmates who only spoke English. Locating the source of these differences was a challenge: “We’re not sure if that’s reflective of the tool, if there is implicit bias … or if it’s simply that children are coming to us at those different skill levels.”

To make measures of children’s skills more equitable, some directors emphasized the need for assessment developers themselves to be more diverse and interdisciplinary. Because assessments may largely be developed with and for white, monolingual children from upper-income families, items may reflect the lived experiences of those populations and leave out the experiences of children from minoritized groups. Children may be assessed on content and themes that they have little knowledge of in their day-to-day lives, making it unclear if their performance on these measures is truly capturing different skills or simply reflecting the biased nature of the assessment content. One director wondered, “Who are the writers behind [the tool], what was the input?” Another director shared that when you look at who the contributors behind a tool are, “you can kind of tell” who is represented and, importantly, who is not. “If everybody is a researcher—no parents, no teachers—that’s a red flag.”

When discussing how to make assessments more equitable, some directors had more fundamental questions: “How do we have equity [in assessments] when you have preschool programs that can’t even afford books?” For some, measurement tools reflected their program’s access to resources rather than the performance of their students. Speaking of a particular measurement tool that they found lacking, one center director shared, “The way you could solve problems [with the tool] is if you had enough money to purchase what was missing.”

Assessments must be used to strengthen connections with parents.

Many administrators saw assessments as a promising opportunity to provide parents with useful information about their child’s development and ideas about how to best support learning at home. A handful of center directors highlighted the need for school-home connections with one director noting, “If you're entrusting us with your child's learning, we need to show you what that learning looks like. And to do that, we need to measure it.” For these pre-K leaders, assessments were at the heart of the relationship between families and providers.

Most commonly, programs took it upon themselves to break down the data for parents. This happened through parent-teacher conferences, committee meetings, and workshops. One center director described how the process works in their program: “At our workshops, we discuss each child’s most recent data, but we also take a deeper dive into one essential skill. So, if there's a skill that a lot of children are struggling with, we identify that skill and we dive deeper into that with our families. And then we give our parents tips on how to reinforce that skill in the home environment.” By homing in on particular skills, assessment data were presented in a way that parents could understand and act on.

Administrators felt that this type of engagement was most useful when it led parents to learn about “the little things they can do” to support learning. For example, one director noted the types of questions parents could ask their child in order to extend learning outside the classroom: “Even on their walk or ride to school, reading the letters on the stop sign, what color is the stop sign, what shape is it?” According to one director, it is important that parent engagement around assessment data “support the home-school connection,” but it is also a golden opportunity to “accelerate the learning because the parents and the teachers are doing the same thing from school to the home.”

As early learning programs and policymakers continue to have discussions about how to improve assessments, the perspective of pre-K administrators provides unique insight into the needs and experiences of stakeholders at multiple levels. By incorporating these voices in the process of choosing, collecting, and using assessment data, early learning systems can be stronger, more equitable, and more effective for all early learners.