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Assessing Young Children: What's Old, What's New, and Where Are We Headed?
By Susan Bowers, Ph.D.

Traditionally, the issues related to assessment have centered around three key questions: 1) Why should I engage in assessment?; 2) Which methods should I select?; and 3) How should I use the information obtained? In this article, the answers to these questions are explored, along with trends emerging in the field today.

Why Engage in Assessment?
One question new professionals in early childhood often ask is, “Why should I engage in assessment?” For some, the answer is obvious-state regulations or administrative boards may mandate assessments. For others, assessment is an elective choice. Assessment is a great way to chart a child’s progress over time, provide feedback to a child’s parent(s), or help with classroom management and discipline. Often, we choose to engage in assessment because we see disruptive or dangerous behavior, and/or because we see “normal behavior exhibited in inappropriate contexts” (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1995, p. 207). The primary reasons for assessment identified in the literature are to screen for disabilities; to assess kindergarten readiness; to assist in developing curriculum and daily activities; to evaluate the effectiveness of a project or a program; and to provide feedback to parents.

Which Measures Should I Select?
Perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of assessment is choosing which method(s) to use. Assessment measures can be grouped into two categories. The first category includes standardized tests and inventories that are available for purchase and used primarily to compare children against developmental norms or to other children. The second category consists of informal methods. Observations may be obtained from informal methods in a methodical way, but the results are not usually compared to standardized norms or averages. Today, hundreds of standardized tests exist, with the majority being designed for use by persons specifically trained in their use and interpretation. Studies suggest early childhood professionals tend to choose standardized tests that are already being used by others (Johnson & Beauchamp, 1987). Many individuals in early childhood rely on a combination of assessment methods, including some of the common informal methods, as well, as a source of collecting data about young children.

Standardized Tests and Inventories
One of the major advantages of standardized tests is that the results can be used to compare a child to developmental norms or to children in similar circumstances. A norm is an average or series of averages obtained on the sample of children used in developing the test. A second advantage sometimes cited is the predictive validity of such tests. That is, children who perform well on standardized tests in the preschool years tend to also perform well on tests in kindergarten and in the early elementary years (Vacc, Vacc, & Fogleman, 1987).

Common tests for preschoolers include the Battelle (Newborg, Stock, & Wnek, 1984), the Child Behavior Checklist (Achenbach, 1992), the DIAL-R (Mardell-Czudnowski & Goldenberg, 1990), the Miller Assessment for Preschoolers (Miller, 1982), the Peabody Developmental Motor Scales (Folio & Fewell, 1984) and the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (Dunn & Dunn, 1981). Tests often used with infants include the Bayley Scales of Infant Development (Bayley, 1993), and the Denver Developmental Screening Test (Frankenburg et al., 1975).

One of the major disadvantages of standardized tests is how to interpret the data obtained. Results from administration of such tests must be considered in comparison to similar children in similar circumstances. Often, this comparison is relatively difficult to achieve. An example of this is the cultural bias of early developmental tests, which were developed primarily on Caucasian children from middle-class backgrounds in the United States. Thus, content found in the tests, such as the words and pictures children are to identify, has been criticized as non-applicable to other groups of children (Reynolds, 1982).

In addition, the predictive validity of standardized tests—that is their ability to forecast achievement in kindergarten—may not be the most important variable we want to know (Pilkington, 1988; Quay & Steele, 1998; Rudner, 1996). More and more, alternatives to formal tests are being explored, including measures which are thought to be more holistic and developmentally appropriate in their focus and approach.

Validity and Reliability
Standardized tests are accompanied by information regarding their validity and reliability. Validity information, indicating whether the test really “measures what it is supposed to measure,” (Witt, Elliott, Kramer & Gresham, 1994, p. 103) offers teachers the opportunity to evaluate whether the test is appropriate for its intended use. Reliability information, indicating the test’s ability to produce “the same result when repeatedly measuring the same thing,” (Witt et al., 1994, p. 95) helps determine a teacher’s degree of confidence in the information that will be obtained. Information on both validity and reliability can be found in the manual that accompanies the test when purchased.

In addition, standardized tests are designed to be used by individuals specifically trained in their administration and interpretation. Many standardized tests, although available for purchase, should not be used without prior training and/or experience. In part, this is because such tests must be administered in a standardized way in controlled testing conditions for the results to be valid. In addition, even with proper administration, the results are meant to be interpreted by individuals knowledgeable in what the norms given in the manual mean, and how to best compare children to such norms. For example, a test may be developed and standardized on both boys and girls. Later, when the test is administered to a girl, the results obtained could be compared to either the initial sample of boys and girls or only girls in the initial sample. If you find this confusing, it is!

Informal Methods and Other Techniques
Informal methods for assessment range from teacher-made (such as checklists or open-ended questions) to those that are purchased. Many teachers are familiar with and use the anecdotal record, a format in which short episodes of a child’s behavior are recorded and kept for comparing change in behavior over time. One primary advantage of this method is its ease of use. Anecdotes can be recorded in virtually any setting at any time with very few materials needed. Other informal methods commonly used are time sample, checklists, rating scales, interviews, and videotape or audiotape recordings. All of these methods should include the following five elements: frequency of the behavior observed, duration of the behavior or event, a complete heading describing when and where the observation occurred, and the date and time.

An additional method which has been gaining favor in the early childhood community is the portfolio (Gronlund, 1998; Honig, 1996; Kankaanranta, 1996). In general, a portfolio is any collection of works thought to be representative of the individual. For young children, this often includes drawings and writings, and/or stories dictated to an adult. Additionally, portfolios may include information about the child contributed by teachers, parents, and other professionals (e.g., speech therapists).

One advantage of the portfolio is that it can be used as a springboard for reflection. Reflections centering around a portfolio can occur with children themselves, with parents, or with other professionals. Discussions with children around a portfolio may include reflection on what the child drew (“tell me more about...,”) or looking with the child at his or her work ver time. With parents and professionals, portfolios offer the distinct advantage of having an array of information about the child, which can serve as a springboard for discussion at parent conferences. This form of assessment differs from standardized tests, which often leave parents confused as to the interpretation of the score(s) and their relation to a child’s daily behavior and needs.

Selecting Informal Methods
The criteria used for selecting any method should be based on the purpose of the assessment itself. Questions asked prior to engaging in assessment should include: 1) Why do I need this information? What is the purpose of my efforts? 2) Based on what I need to know, what kind of information will be helpful? Test scores? Written records? Works found in a portfolio? 3) How often and when do I need to collect such information, and how can I best assure the information is accurate and valid? In addition, any method used should be selected for its appropriateness for the children on whom it will be used. Two important criteria are developmental appropriateness, e.g., “Is it designed for the age of child I’m testing?” and cultural appropriateness, e.g., “Is it relevant to the background and daily circumstances of the child?”

Using Informal Methods
To some extent, any method is only as good as the person performing it. Thus, assessments are most appropriate when every effort has been made to insure objectivity (Salvia & Ysseldyke, 1995). Objectivity refers to the process of examining a child or event without pre-formed ideas about outcome. When we are objective we report only the facts, and, in turn, interpret those facts based only on what was observed, rather than feelings or attitudes about the child.

Another common question asked by early childhood professionals is, “When should assessment occur?” Researchers suggest observations should occur on an ongoing basis in natural settings (Shepard, Kagan, & Wurtz, 1998), and should be integrated into daily activities (Chapman, 1997).

Emerging and New Approaches to Assessment
Increasingly, many early childhood professionals are moving away from “old” methods altogether, and relying instead on techniques thought to be more holistic and developmentally appropriate. These methods include innovative approaches which emphasize behavior occurring in natural settings and assessments which reflect the complete set of circumstances surrounding the child.

One area in which innovative methods have been emerging is in the assessment of children at risk, including children at risk because of poverty (Dunbar & Reed, 1999) and/or disabilities (Lee & Kahn, J., 1997). At-risk children may be assessed to screen for (or to evaluate the effect of) fine and gross motor delays, speech and hearing difficulties, and atypical behavior. One example of an innovative method is play-based assessment, which evaluates children’s developmental skills and their social interactions, learning styles and behaviors” through play (Lowenthal, 1997, p. 1).

How Should Assessment Information Be Used?
During the assessment process every effort should be made to use the information in ways that are respectful of the child. In the best scenarios, we pay careful attention to issues such as confidentiality and consent. Confidentiality implies all information will be discussed only in professional settings, and the information will be handled in such a way that identities and results are revealed only to the intended audience.

Consent, on the other hand, implies individuals (or parents, in the case of minors) have given their permission to be evaluated and/or assessed. Parents may offer such consent at the time of the program enrollment if they sign a form indicating that they realize such activities will be occurring. Otherwise, it is wise to obtain specific permission prior to engaging in ongoing assessment projects, even if informal measures are being used.

In addition, assessment should occur only if it is likely to have some direct benefit to the child or the program (Witt et al., 1994). For example, our assessment efforts might help the child in some way by improving teaching or caregiving, by providing intervention for special needs, and/or by providing a means of documenting the child’s developmental growth. One practice to avoid is the temptation to label children based on assessment results, such as “this child is difficult” or “this child is slow.” Studies indicate children placed in these categories very early on have difficulty overcoming them later.

Where Are We Headed? Innovative Approaches
In the 21st century, assessment practices are likely to become more holistic and innovative in their approach. For example, a relatively new term that has emerged is “authentic assessment.” Authentic assessments take into account the particular circumstances surrounding the evaluation of individual children (Gonzalez-Mena, 1998). These circumstances include a range of issues from the settings in which testing occurs to the appropriateness of the assessment instrument used. Another term being used with increasing frequency is “performance-based assessment.” Performance-based assessment refers to focusing on the daily activities and skills already being performed by the child (Brualdi, 1998). Finally, researchers working in clinical settings are likely to provoke us with their ongoing findings of the relationship between biology and behavior. Scientists working in these domains are now using electrophysical and neuroimaging techniques to assess and screen for potential delays in young children (Tyler & Howard, 1996).

Family Involvement
Family involvement in assessment, such as parent reports and observations, has been relatively overlooked in mainstream early childhood settings. However, it is likely such strategies will gain popularity in the coming years. Researchers suggest information obtained from parents can be an important part of the assessment process (Wolfendal, 1998). Studies also indicate parent reports are helpful in identifying and screening for disabilities (Ireton, et al, 1995). Ireton et al., analyzed data reported by parents using a standardized inventory, and found such data was helpful and consistent with the decisions made by other professionals. In addition, family involvement may benefit all parties involved. Honig (1996), for example, suggests parents who are included in assessment gain valuable knowledge about their child’s behavior, as well as their role in facilitating developmental growth.

Emphasis on the Positive
Finally, after decades of assessing what children cannot do, there has been a shift toward focusing instead on what children can do. Such positive approaches to assessment are thought to be helpful in viewing the child as an individual with unique characteristics and abilities rather than disabilities. As professionals, such approaches also help us maintain more positive attitudes about the issues related to child development, and our role in modifying environments and/or providing intervention.

Review of research indicates assessment techniques, both standardized and informal have been, and will remain, an important tool for early childhood professionals. Assessment methods can be used to screen for disabilities, to assess kindergarten readiness, to assist in developing curriculum and daily activities, to evaluate the effectiveness of a project or a program, and/or to provide feedback to parents. Traditional questions surrounding assessment centered on three key questions. In the future, these questions will continue to be asked, along with many new questions, which accompany our increasingly complex knowledge of child development.

Susan Bowers, Ph.D., is a professor of early childhood studies at Northern Illinois University, and a child care consultant in the Chicago area. She has experience as a preschool teacher and director, as a parent counselor for child care resource and referral, and as a researcher in medical diagnostic settings. Dr. Bowers is also the author of a recent series of research articles on training early childhood professionals.


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