Learning Leader

Preschool Assessment: Is It Necessary?

In one word: yes.

But opponents often claim that preschool assessments put undue burdens on a child who could otherwise be learning and on a teacher who could otherwise be teaching. The word “assessment” conjures images of nervous, sweating children confined to desks for hours on end, and anxious teachers teaching to a test that can negatively affect their pay or even their employment status. Why would we subject a preschool classroom to this kind of scrutiny?

In fact, quality assessment practices in preschool look much more like quick, playful activities than they do lengthy standardized tests. In the CIRCLE Progress Monitoring System, developed by the Children’s Learning Institute, the assessment times range from two to ten minutes for an entire learning domain. Far from being stressful, often children are excited about these brief “tests” because it means some one-on-one time with their teacher. And teachers, with training and quality resources supporting them, value the instructional roadmap data provides in an otherwise dizzying hurdle to get a classroom of children prepared for kindergarten in less than a year.

But assessments should not be performed for assessment’s sake. Below are some guiding principles for making the most of assessments and creating a wider culture of data-driven decision making.

Whatever else assessment results are used for, they must be used in instructional decision making.

The focus of data in the preschool classroom should always be on the individual children’s learning needs. Assessment allows educators to identify answers to two crucial questions:

1. Are our instructional strategies and lesson plans targeting the right skills for the largest number of children in the classroom?

A common scenario is that teachers are focusing time and energy in one area of instruction when data suggests children would benefit more from activities that support other skill areas. Similarly, a teacher might notice a few children struggling with one skill and plan activities for the whole group. This can result in watered down instruction for struggling students and a waste of valuable learning time for the rest of the class. Which leads us to #2:

2. Which students are falling behind the others and in what specific skill areas? 

Informal assessments and observations are certainly useful but are not foolproof; it is unrealistic to expect teachers to accurately pinpoint every child’s status in every skill progression important for school readiness. Direct assessments can enhance other types of data collection by providing valid, reliable, and immediate identification of children who are struggling to keep up with their peers in certain skill areas.

Children identified as "at-risk" through assessment may receive more frequent, more intensive, and/or different types of instruction. “Tiered” instructional approaches, in which students with the least developed skills are targeted with small group or one-to-one instructional sessions, have repeatedly been shown by research to be effective in advancing child outcomes. The CIRCLE Progress Monitoring System automates this process by recommending student groupings based on assessment results and linking directly to supportive lessons for those students in the digital CIRCLE Activity Collection.

Assessments should be ongoing (referred to as progress monitoring), with instruction adjusted upon review of every new assessment result.

Students develop at different paces and instructional approaches impact that development in different ways. A single assessment simply does not provide enough information to guide instructional choices for an entire year. CLI recommends assessing preschoolers with the CIRCLE Progress Monitoring System at least three times a year (remember, the assessments are quick!). Ongoing progress monitoring helps determine whether the adjusted instructional support is working; if it is not, it may be that different approaches are needed or that a child is a candidate for more specialized services.

Get buy-in for assessment and build a data-driven culture.

In order for this all to be worthwhile, school personnel, particularly teachers, need to be on board. Below are some tips for administrators looking to build a data-driven culture in their classrooms.

1. Build trust: focus the use of data on improving student achievement, not teacher performance evaluations. Create a blameless data culture so that everyone is working together to examine the data and collaborate for change.

2. Empower teachers: support teachers’ use of progress monitoring as part of their teaching and learning cycle (assess > analyze > plan > teach).

3. Provide training: use data to identify and target professional development needs to improve instructional best practices.

4. Assess what matters: prioritize key school readiness learning areas, and only collect data with which you intend to take action.

The truth educators and parents should recognize is that assessment has the potential to be THE most powerful tool for combating widening achievement gaps among at-risk students. Through training and supporting teachers to use ongoing progress monitoring to inform their instructional choices, students who need the most intensive help will be, by the numbers, more likely to receive it.

Learn more about the CIRCLE Progress Monitoring System here, available at NO COST to all Texas public school districts, Head Start centers, Texas Rising Star certified childcare providers, and Texas School Ready project participants.


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