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Early Learning Challenge: how to manage assessments for the youngest students

October 27, 2011

A competitive federal grant is now requiring State applicants to include in their applications a plan to implement and formally assess kindergarten students beginning with the 2014-2015 school year.  Experience with NCLB has shown that testing and assessing programs aren’t always implemented or used the way they were intended, and they are sometimes not as effective as originally hoped; will another assessment initiative prove any different?

The Early Learning Challenge (ELC) competitive grant, announced by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan earlier this spring, provides states with the opportunity to improve the quality of early learning and development programs, and close the achievement gap for children with high needs. The closing date to submit applications was October 19th with award announcements expected by the end of this calendar year.

The ELC offered a wide a range of awards available for each State. The range of those prospective awards is based on each State’s share of the national population of children ages birth through five years old from low-income families. States are grouped into four categories with Category 1 states eligible for up to 100 million dollars, and Category 4 states eligible for up to 50 million dollars. The categories and their respective awards by State are listed below. This program is jointly administered by the U.S. Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS).

Category 1 – up to $100M – California, Florida, New York, Texas

Category 2 – up to $70M –Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania

Category 3 –up to $60M – Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin

Category 4 – up to $50M – Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming

Arguably, any additional support to enhance and improve early childhood education is a good one, particularly during these challenging economic times. Yet not all states jumped at this financial opportunity. For example, of the four Category 1 states, all but Texas submitted an application. Category 4 states Idaho and Wyoming cited concerns about one time funding as a reason for not applying.  Overall, a total of 35 states, along with Washington D.C and Puerto Rico, submitted applications. The application outlined requirements, priorities, selection criteria, and definitions in accordance with the program’s purpose; however, the devil may be in the details.

In the application States must address an Absolute Priority. If the priority is not addressed in the application will not be considered. The Absolute Priority in the Early Learning Challenge application includes the development of a tool to measure and assess kindergarten readiness across multiple domains.

The rationale behind such a formal kindergarten assessment program appears reasonable. Evidence suggests that the achievement gaps found at the kindergarten entry level continues and widens through the school years.1 At the same time, instituting formal assessments at as a way of closing achievement gaps seems strikingly similar to the justification for assessments outlined in No Child Left Behind (NCLB); however, after a decade of controversy and lower than desired results surrounding NCLB implementation, school-age achievement gaps still exist. Formal assessments as a single panacea for resolving complex achievement problems have a mixed and not-improving track record.

Concerns regarding this approach have been expressed by some early learning leaders. Ben Allen, the public policy and research director for the Washington based National Head Start Association said, “We don’t want assessments to be used to reward or sanction individual children or teachers.” Even if valid assessments are developed, Sharon Lynn, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University, worries that their implementation would be at the expense of play and exploration two very important approaches used for educating early learners.

A one-time single snapshot assessment of a four or five year old gives little, if any, valid instructional information.2 During this time period of rapid brain growth and accelerated development, young learners need to be observed and assessed frequently and across a variety of situations to acquire significant insight. Structured and naturalistic observations of children enable educators to gather developmental information across all of the learning domains. The observational skills of an early childhood specialist, or kindergarten teacher, are second to none. Observing children in their natural setting has shown to be the most effective method of assessment of young children. Many sources indicate it is not educationally appropriate to implement formal assessment methods on quickly changing, growing and developing four and five year old children. Assessment results obtained on any one day could be drastically different from assessment results administered just a short time later.

Since the implementation of NCLB, annual assessments have significantly affected the teaching-learning process. Time for student-centered learning has been encroached upon by test preparation and practice tests, and many stakeholders have devoted resources to high-stakes assessments that might otherwise improve instruction and outcomes.  While none of this has been the intended results of formal assessments, it has been the stark reality.

School district and building leaders should closely monitor the implementation of any formal assessment of kindergarten students. While the purpose of formal assessment program is well intended, concerns regarding the inappropriate use of test data results and application of that data must be explicitly  addressed by leaders. Using data from a single-source assessment to hastily place, refer and retain students should be avoided, and results should not be used to exclude students when age makes them eligible to attend kindergarten. Leaders must communicate this message to teachers and parents alike. Additionally, leaders should reassure teachers that results from formal assessments given at this age will not be linked or tied to their evaluations.  Leaders must continue to support and encourage teachers to assess using curriculum based assessments and ongoing student observations across all of the learning domains.  Student data and other information from these authentic assessments should be frequently collected and placed in a student portfolio or database. It should then be used to effectively monitor expected student growth and development at specific time intervals. Following the early childhood theories of Piaget and Montessori, play and exploration must remain the staples of early learning activities. Educators must be guided by those principles and never compromise in the face of federal incentives, political pressure and other outside factors.


  1. Taken from a New York State Education memo, October 12, 2011, – re: Determination of Kindergarten Readiness – to the P-12 Education Committee, proving a rationale as to why the committee and the Board of Regents should approve kindergarten assessments as a criterion for submitting the ELC grant. The Board of Regents subsequently approved this at its October 17th meeting.
  2. Early Childhood Assessment for Children from Birth to Age 8,” Pennsylvania’s Department of Education and Public Welfare, Harrisburg, Pa, December 2005.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    October 28, 2011 3:58 pm

    I could not agree with you more. I played assessment games with my preschoolers when I took over the class, but my main source of developmental level is in the anecdotal notes. We currently use the Opening the World of Learning curriculum. While restrictive in its subject manner, it comes with an online assessment tool to help teachers. Every day, I enter observations and attach a picture with it if necessary. I have access to checklists to help me determine when children have mastered a particular skill. Thank you so much for this article!

  2. Philip S. Cicero permalink
    October 29, 2011 1:08 pm

    Amy – thanks for the feedback. Nothing is better than the observational skills of a teacher. We should recognize those skills as valid as any other instrument. Phil Cicero

  3. John Hucker permalink
    November 2, 2011 12:27 pm

    I recommend looking at the UK’s Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum and assessments. These laid the foundation of some excellent Early Years work. It is being revised to a simpler state, but that really works for people with the established curriculum behind them. Child initiated play is at the heart, always.

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