Reporter's Notebook

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Preschool Educators Broach Assessment, A Once-Taboo Topic

The topic of assessment used to be approached with great skepticism and, at times, anger when members of the National Association for the Education of Young Children came together.

But times and attitudes have changed.

"We are here to discuss the A-word," Jerlean Daniel, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a past president of the Washington-based NAEYC, joked here last month when she greeted attendees at the group’s 13th annual professional-development institute. "We now even have the nerve to hear from someone" at the Educational Testing Service.

In recent years, Ms. Daniel added, those who work in early-childhood education have moved to "a state of tell me more."

The theme of the June 20-23 institute this year, in fact, was learning from assessment.

"Appropriate assessment can be a crucial tool, but making sure assessment is appropriate is the challenge," Jane Wiechel, the NAEYC’s current president, told the group.

Jacqueline Jones, the director of initiatives in early-childhood and literacy education at the Princeton, N.J.- based ETS, told attendees that it’s important to distinguish between ongoing assessment, which is used to collect valuable information, and tests, which are just a piece of an assessment system.

Testing in early-childhood programs, she added, should be used to "inform instruction." And if child outcomes are used for evaluating programs, administrators and policymakers should "realize it’s just a snapshot."

In his remarks, John M. Johnston, an education professor at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, argued for new methods of evaluating teacher performance.

Teacher assessment, he said, needs to "focus on documenting and acknowledging good teaching and move beyond simply monitoring minimal performance."

Assessments of teachers, he added, should also include multiple perspectives and data sources, and should recognize the variety of roles, relationships, and expectations of teachers that exist in early-childhood education.

In a separate session, Elena Bodrova, a senior researcher at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, a regional education laboratory in Aurora, Colo., pointed out that preschool teachers generally know how to use tests to screen children for possible learning problems or to determine which skills they have already mastered.

But that doesn’t mean, she said, that they know how to use assessments for other purposes, such as improving their instruction or reporting on a program’s effectiveness.

Her findings are based on a survey MCREL conducted with state early-childhood specialists.

"Even well-educated teachers," she said, "need more ongoing professional development on how to use assessment and how to use it in changing environments."

Knowledge of the alphabet, oral-language skills, use of invented spelling, and phonological awareness or sensitivity have the strongest relationships to children’s later reading ability, according to preliminary findings of a study that is expected to help early-childhood professionals and parents build a stronger foundation for reading.

Vocabulary and visual motor skills can also contribute to reading success, but the correlation is not as strong, Chris Schatschneider, a member of the National Early Literacy Panel and an associate professor of psychology at Florida State University in Tallahassee, told those who attended a session here.

The nine-member panel of researchers from eight universities, which is rigorously analyzing hundreds of studies on reading, is being described as a follow-up to the work of the National Reading Panel. The congressionally mandated panel issued an influential report, "Teaching Children to Read," in 2000.

"We didn’t have something of a comparable nature for young children, zero to 5," said Laura Westberg, a reading-initiative senior project manager at the National Center for Family Literacy.

A nonprofit organization that designs family-literacy programs and provides training, the Louisville, Ky.-based center has received funding from the federal National Institute for Literacy to conduct the study, which is expected to be released later this year.

When the report is issued, the research will help guide professional development and be used to craft materials for parents and other caregivers, Ms. Westberg said.

The early- literacy panel is also reviewing studies of various reading-intervention programs to determine which strategies are the most likely to improve children’s skills.

Dorothy Strickland, a panel member and a professor of reading at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said she hopes the panel’s work will bring about consensus in the field over how to improve early-literacy skills.

"It’s not going to be the be-all and end-all, but it’s going to give us some really solid evidence," she said.

The final report, Ms. Strickland added, will also have important implications for teacher education.

"This will help inform the content of preservice programs," she said. "It will be a part of what people will need to know."

—By Linda Jacobson

Vol. 23, Issue 42, Page 12

Published in Print: July 14, 2004, as Reporter's Notebook
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