Why and How to Improve Pre-K Assessments: What Do Head Start Providers Think?

By Marta Benito-Gomez, Rachel Fu

This issue focus was originally published by New America.

Pre-K assessments are key to creating high-quality early learning environments. These tools help educators individualize instruction and ensure that children are developing critical skills in the lead up to kindergarten.

Current assessment tools, however, were not developed with diverse populations of children, can be time- and resource-intensive to collect, and do not always provide information that is easy to understand and use. Innovations in pre-K assessments that address these challenges could help educators and policy leaders make better and faster decisions, strengthen communication between educators and families, and provide all children with supports to help them thrive.

This past spring, MDRC hosted a convening on more equitable early childhood assessments at the National Head Start Conference in Baltimore, MD. More than 100 Head Start educators joined a discussion in which they were invited to share their perspectives, and over 80 participants responded to a brief survey reporting on challenges they’ve faced collecting and using assessments and identifying opportunities for improvement. Here are four priorities they shared:

1. It is crucial to make assessments more equitable and culturally relevant for all children. Many current pre-K assessments were developed and validated with children from white, English-speaking, middle-to-upper-income families. As a result, children are likely to be assessed on content that is not representative of their experiences and home environments, making it unclear whether measures accurately capture children’s skills or reflect bias in measurement. Consistent with this, two-thirds of educators reported that their highest priority for strengthening the content of assessment tools was to make them equity-centered and culturally and linguistically relevant for all children, including those from marginalized backgrounds and living in poverty.

In a follow-up interview conducted by the MDRC team, Sylvia Alston, assistant director of an early learning center at Martha’s Table in Washington, DC, said, “Assessments are created by people who do not look like me, have not lived my life, or been in the classroom. Do assessment creators understand the provider’s perspective and acknowledge children’s background and family dynamics? Assessments should be specifically guided by the children’s background and family dynamics.” Additionally, when it comes to more equitable assessments, it is important to consider the cost of these tools. Alston noted, “Your zip code should never determine access to high-quality assessments and support.” Assessments that are equitable and culturally relevant to all children have the potential to reduce bias in early learning assessments and minimize systemic inequities.

2. Educators want assessments to capture students’ social-emotional skills. Many pre-K assessments focus on measuring children’s basic and foundational academic skills, such as recognizing letters, numbers, and shapes. But more than half of Head Start educators reported that their biggest priority was supporting social-emotional skills. Only about a quarter of educators reported that language and literacy skills were the domain of learning most important to them, with even fewer identifying cognitive skills—like math—as their priority. Findings highlight the need to take action to capture better measures of children’s social-emotional well-being and development, including skills like peer interactions, conflict resolution, emotional knowledge, and behavioral regulation. Mastering such skills will build the early foundation needed to promote resi.lience in the face of challenges and support children’s learning through their schooling and later success.

3. Assessments need to be easier for educators to regularly collect. When asked to rank their highest priority for making pre-K assessment easier to collect on a wide scale, about 60 percent agreed that they needed to be more easily and regularly administered and better integrated into typical classroom instruction. “Assessments need to be user-friendly, practical, and understandable for both educators and parents. Educators should also be able to easily implement the assessment into the curriculum,” said Alston from Martha’s Table. A smaller proportion of respondents—about a third—noted that they wanted assessments to be updated more frequently so that the information is more relevant.

4. Assessments must generate useful information and strengthen communications between educators and parents. About 83 percent of educators agreed that assessments should describe children’s strengths and areas of growth across different learning domains, and 75 percent agreed that they should generate information that can facilitate communication between educators and families to support young children. “The purpose of assessment data is to help move children forward,” said Alston, but “if teachers don’t have training in how to interpret or apply data, assessment becomes a waste of time because they don’t know what to do with the data.”

In an effort to support educators of Head Start centers, the National Head Start Association is developing resources that aim to strengthen providers’ understanding of different types of assessments and how to use them in their communities to support children’s strengths and needs, such as using child assessments worksheets. Availability of these resources is key to support early childhood providers and promote the use of assessments that lead to high-quality data and instruction.

As we continue identifying priorities and learning about innovative ways to improve pre-K assessments, educators can provide unique perspectives to address challenges experienced with assessments. Integrating their voices is crucial for the success of developing and implementing innovative assessments that can be easy to administer, equitable, and promote connections with parents with the goal of supporting all young learners.

Marta Benito-Gomez is an operations associate in MDRC’s Family Well-Being and Children’s Development Policy Area. Rachel Fu is a policy analyst at Pillars Research and Strategy.