Early Childhood

Federal Grant Prospect Reignites Kindergarten-Assessment Debate

By Christina A. Samuels — February 19, 2013 6 min read
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A federal grant program in the works to help states jump-start kindergarten-entry assessments is renewing debate among early-childhood educators about the benefits and pitfalls of evaluating young children.

The U.S. Department of Education aims to distribute $9.2 million for the readiness-to-learn initiative through an existing grant program intended to help states devise better tests at all grade levels.

The proposal, for which the department is seeking comments through Feb. 25, comes at a time when the White House is paying increased attention to early education. In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said he would make universal preschool a budget priority. And in 2011, the Education Department launched Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants, awarding about $633 million to 14 states.

Some state officials say the money would be welcome as they revamp their early-childhood-assessment programs. But others suggest that if the Education Department wants to focus attention on just one part of early learning, an avenue other than kindergarten assessments—teacher professional development, for example—would have been more welcome.

Assessing young children has been a long-standing area of concern for early-childhood-education advocates.

Starting Points

States vary widely in how—or if—they assess the skills and learning status of kindergartners. Research working on behalf of the Build Initiative, a multistate partnership that helps construct coordinated programs for young children and their families, compiled information on how the 37 states that applied for Early Learning Challenge Grant funds were handling assessments of young children. Examples include:

Type of Test: Work Sampling System
Developer: Pearson Education
How Used: In Maryland, teachers are given “observational criteria” in seven different domains, including personal and social development; language and literacy; scientific thinking; and physical development. Teachers also collect portfolios of pupils’ work.

Type of test: Teaching Strategies GOLD
Developer: Teaching Strategies LLC
How Used: In Washington state, teachers observe children’s skills in six areas, such as social-emotional, language, and cognitive. The program also includes connections to family, and the results inform statewide policy decisions.

Type of test: Observational Assessment
Developer: State-developed
How Used: In Connecticut: The state’s “kindergarten-entrance inventory” is administered in October. Teachers evaluate children on a variety of skills, such as counting to 10; holding a book and turning pages from front to back; and following classroom routines. An “exit inventory” also measures pupils’ skills as they prepare to leave kindergarten.

Type of test: Language and Literacy
Developer: State-developed
How Used in Ohio: The state department of education’s “Kindergarten Readiness Assessment-Literacy” measures skill areas needed to become a successful reader. The test helps teachers plan lessons that encourage reading.

SOURCE: Education Week

They caution that while assessments can offer valuable information on the well-being of young children in several areas of their development, such evaluations should not be used to make high-stakes decisions—among them, steering children away from kindergarten. And they add that there are difficulties in using readiness assessments to make decisions about the quality of the preschools that children might have attended.

“We have to take into account that there is no absolute standard for [children] to have achieved when they enter kindergarten,” said Samuel J. Meisels, the president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute and the co-creator of the Work Sampling System, an observational assessment for early-elementary school students that is administered in several states.

Entry evaluations should be used to measure the child’s ability to acquire skills, not just what knowledge that child may have at the time the assessment is given, Mr. Meisels said. “These are, generally speaking, a roll of the dice in terms of prediction.”

Others say the grant competition would help states address an area of growing concern—and expense. Crafting valid assessments that are aligned to academic standards is a major undertaking for state education agencies, said Thomas Schultz, the project director for early-childhood initiatives at the Council of Chief State School Officers. All but four states are currently working on adapting K-12 instruction to align with the Common Core State Standards, an initiative led by the nation’s governors and the council.

“Historically in early childhood, there’s been a concern about whether we have really high-quality assessment tools that inform teachers in how to guide their work with kids,” Mr. Schultz said. “In the last year or so, a lot of the states have been taking a look at their early-childhood standards.” With that look comes the opportunity for a new generation of assessments, he added.

Observing Pupils

Many well-regarded readiness assessments gauge children’s skills through teacher observation. Young children are still so new to the school environment that they can’t be expected to understand the importance of the evaluation, and they may not have mastered a skill well enough to repeat it on demand, or for someone they don’t know.

In observational assessments, teachers are trained in such areas as identifying signs of preliteracy and gathering the information on children over time. The information can then be compiled and used in the classroom or shared with school administrators.

Good entry assessments also are multifaceted. The Education Department’s proposed priorities say it wants to underwrite kindergarten-entry assessments that measure “children’s learning and development across all the essential domains"—not just academic readiness but social skills, physical health, and emotional well-being. The department says they should align with academic standards in later grades and be used to guide teachers in talking to families about the skills their children have learned or still need to work on.

But some question the need for a new grant competition at a time when the 14 states in the Early Learning Challenge grant program are also creating school entry assessments for young children.

“What is the value-added of this?” asked Adele B. Robinson, the deputy executive director overseeing policy and public affairs for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in Washington.

Mr. Meisels offered a similar perspective. “One of the big questions is, why do this right now, and why do this at all?” He said the Education Department’s funding cycle means it may take a year or more for states to start their work under the new grant, and by that time, the states involved in the Early Learning Challenge program will also be rolling out their own comprehensive systems.

“There’s been a lot of conversation, and there’s some help that’s needed” in devising assessments, he said. “I don’t know yet whether this is going to be the help that’s required.”

The Education Department did not make someone available for comment last week. In a document outlining the proposed priorities for the grant, it stated that kindergarten-entry assessments are a “critical piece of a comprehensive early-learning assessment system” and that the information gathered can help close achievement gaps.

Improving Systems

States involved in the Early Learning Challenge grants are eyeing the proposed grant as a potential new source of funds. Maryland and Ohio, both challenge-grant winners, are working together to create a comprehensive assessment program for kindergarten pupils. Maryland was funded at about $50 million, and Ohio received about $70 million.

For eight years, Ohio has used a system it devised that measures early literacy skills, called the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment-Literacy. Stephanie K. Siddens, the director of the office of early learning and school readiness for the Ohio education department, said the state wanted to expand its assessment to other areas of social and emotional development. The new assessment will be aligned to a new set of standards for early childhood and implemented by 2014-15, as the grant requires.

The scope of the work the state is undertaking would have been impossible without support from the federal government, Ms. Siddens said. In addition to producing the assessments, the state is funding the extensive professional development teachers will need to administer them and interpret the results.

Since 2001, Maryland has been using a heavily modified version of the Work Sampling System, which evaluates young children in areas such as language, literacy, and physical development, said Rolf H. Grafwallner, the assistant state superintendent of the division of early-childhood development. Those assessments were used at the classroom level, and the state also broke down scores by pupil demographic groups to help guide statewide policy.

That assessment, however, is not in alignment with the common core, which Maryland has adopted, Mr. Grafwallner said.

The states are engaged in “a complicated and complex collaboration,” he said, but one that has been worthwhile for both. By evaluating young children in multiple areas, he said, the state is also sending a signal to early-childhood programs that “all these domains are critical.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as Grant Aid Eyed to Boost Kindergarten Assessments

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