Assessment Options and Techniques
By Deb Bergholm-Petka and Wilda Pipkin

With today’s increased accountability mandates, gaining an accurate and objective understanding of a young child’s strengths, needs and progress is more essential than ever. Assessment is essential in identifying where a child is developmentally, tracking progress over time, providing feedback to parent(s), or help with classroom management, discipline (Bowers, n.d.) and individualized instruction.

In order to ensure that all areas of development are being assessed and that objective and reliable results are being produced that can easily share with parents and other staff members, most educators select a valid, researched-based assessment tool. Below are factors to consider when selecting and administering assessment tests.

Selecting Assessment Tools
In their position paper “Where we stand on curriculum, assessment and program evaluation” the NAEYC and NAECS/SDE recommend “Make ethical, appropriate, valid and reliable assessment a central part of all early childhood programs.” With that in mind, the choice of assessment instrument may also be guided by factors such as the purpose of the testing, federal and state mandates, and ease of use.
 
Some assessment tools are designed for very specific purposes while others cover an entire range, which can include but is not limited to the following:

• Determining the current levels of a child’s performance
• Identifying delays, disabilities, giftedness and academic talent
• Informing families of their child’s strengths and weaknesses
• Adjusting instruction to meet individual needs
• Monitoring progress on an ongoing basis or tracking progress in specific areas
• Ensuring that children’s skills and knowledge are aligned to state standards

One example of a government mandate is the state of Georgia’s requirement that assessment results be reported in terms of standard deviations, something that not all instruments can accommodate. Therefore, educators may choose to use several assessment tools in order to fulfill all their goals. For example, the preschool diagnostic center and classroom teachers in Clayton County, Georgia uses one assessment to fulfill the state’s mandate for reports with standard deviations, but personnel also use other assessment instruments to guide instructional planning.
 
When educators have a choice, ease of use is always a key consideration. Teachers should look for instruments that provide valid, reliable data that is easily interpreted to help them make intervention decisions, plan individualized instruction and advise parents.

Administering Assessments
An assessment tool should look at the whole child and cover all areas of child development: physical well-being and motor skills, language development, pre-academic/academic knowledge or cognition, general knowledge, and finally, social-emotional and self-help skills.

Most programs begin with a screening assessment given to all students as they enter the program.  The screen is a brief test, which should take only 10 or 15 minutes, that provides an initial “snapshot” of a child’s level of development in key domains Some children have had limited opportunities to learn, so screening provides a quick way to discover what a child knows and where to begin instruction.

Screening results will also identify children who need further evaluation. Once a child is referred, a broader, diagnostic assessment will be given to identify specific areas of strength and weakness to aid teachers in creating appropriate, individualized instructional goals and objectives. The assessment tool or inventory should contain goals that can be tailored to meet each child’s unique needs.  An objective should be written in measurable terms and include the following: a description of the task(s) the child will perform to demonstrate mastery, the level of accuracy required and the date by which the child should be able to perform the skill. An example follows: “By May 25, 2004, when presented with four lowercase letters, one of which is different, Lisa will indicate which symbol is different. The task will be performed for five different sets of lowercase letters with 100 percent accuracy” (Curriculum Associates, n.d.).

Assessments can include criterion-based testing, norm-referenced testing, or a combination of both. Criterion-based testing focuses on the individual strengths and weaknesses of a child’s performance, which helps teachers to plan more personalized instruction. Norm-referenced testing compares a child’s performance to those of other children in the same age group. An inventory should include instructions for norm-referenced testing as well as some type of standardized assessments record book. This record book will contain the recommended starting point for the assessment, as well as a system for recording the items that a child mastered, the items completed unsuccessfully, and a way to determine the cutoff point for the test.

The development record book, or its equivalent, provides an assessment history for that student and should contain a list of all the skills to be mastered by that child within a certain age range as well as age references that let educators know at what age to begin testing for a specific skill. Recording assessment data in this way will allow educators to consistently and easily track progress as well as share information with parents and other educational staff.
 
With the focus on accountability, schools need data to make decisions for individual instruction plans as well as program-wide analysis.  Software and web-based data management services can provide educators with an easy way to collect data and create reports that cover the individual child’s progress and aggregate and disaggregate data for groups of children based on educational, ethnic and economic factors.  These programs can also provide normed data reports of quotients, percentiles, age equivalents and instructional ranges. Longitudinally, the software will maintain an assessment history for each child and help teachers establish objectives for the child’s progress.

Concluding Thoughts
The first priority of an assessment system should be to forge a strong and useful connection between the program curriculum and the assessment of child skills and knowledge (Horton, C. and Bowman, B. 2001) An effective assessment should collect information necessary to make important decisions about a child’s developmental and educational needs to enhance opportunities for growth, development, and learning.

References
Horton, Carol and Barbara T. Bowman (2002). Child Assessment at the Preprimary Level: Expert opinion and state trends. Herr Research Center, Erikson Institute. Retrieved June 21 from: http://www.erikson.edu/research.asp?file=publications_topic&highlight=child+assessment+at+the+preprimary+level

Bowers, S. Ph.D. (n.d.). Assessing Young Children: What’s Old, What’s New, and Where Are We Headed?  Retrieved June 21, 2005 from: http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=210

Curriculum Associates, Inc. (n.d.). BRIGANCE® Diagnostic Inventory of Early Development II. Module 2: Criterion-Referenced Testing. Retrieved June 21, 2005 from: http://www.curriculumassociates.com/catraining/ca101/IED/menu.asp?CustID=9624097618607051016083

NAEYC and NAEC/SDE (2003), “Early Childhood Curriculum, Assessment, and Program Evaluation—Building an Effective, Accountable System in Programs for Children Birth Through Age 8” Retrieved June 21, 2005 from: http://www.naeyc.org/about/positions/pdf/pscape.pdf.