As I completed my National Board Renewal of my Early Childhood Generalist (EC/GEN) certificate last week, I came away invigorated and a little amazed at the progress the profession has made in acknowledging the expertise of teachers, especially concerning assessment. The profession has come so far, even in the past 15 years.

When I graduated from teacher preparation, I understood my job as two tiered. I was to plan instruction and then implement it to meet standards that were evaluated by mandated measures of my success. The standards, meant to drive my instruction, were set by an external entity that did not know my students. I wasn’t supposed to design assessment.

When I began to teach, I discovered that strictly administering mandated assessments was not enough. The assessments did not address the levels of language understanding my students gained over time. These levels can best be understood as:

1. Physical (pointing, crying, swatting, smiling, nodding)

2. Receptive (Point to your nose. Point to the letter B.)

3. Expressive (What letter is this? What color is this?)

4. Symbolic (What is this a picture of? What is the big yellow M?)

5. Written (Forming letters, pointing to words, recognizing a name).

As I became proficient at teaching, I found that each of these levels developed concurrently and were interdependent with other developmental domains. For instance, written expression is highly dependent on fine motor (physical development). Finally, there were additional mediating factors of culture and trust. For example, in my students’ community, a clothes’ hanger is called a “rack.” A picture of a hanger was an actual assessment prompt for expressive language development in my early years. If I had not understood this cultural difference I would have needed to mark my students’ responses as wrong.

I learned that a simple assessment of a 4 year-old, such as “Write your name,” may need scaffolding and support, similar to teaching.

Here is an example of how complex even this simple assessment can be, based on levels of communicative ability:

  • A student may not know their name because they have always been called something they respond to. They may never have been told, “Your name is James.” It may sound far fetched, but I have had this experience many times.

  • This same student may not know that their name is James because, for the past 4 years, they have been called “ManMan,” their nickname, by every adult and child they interact with. This reliance on nicknames in my students’ families serves two purposes. It identifies the child but also serves as an indicator of how much a child should trust a new a person. If an adult calls the student James instead of ManMan, he is not from inside of his community.

  • James may actually know his name is James and respond when spoken to, but when asked “What is your name?” respond, “ManMan.”

  • James may know his name and respond when he is called but not be able to express verbally, “My name is James.”

  • James may even be able to say, “My name is James.” and spell out verbally, “J-A-M-E-S.” However, when James is asked to point to the letter J on a word wall, he does nothing. Why? Is it because he doesn’t recognize the letter J, or is it because he doesn’t recognize the letter J out of the context of his name?

  • Finally, James may know his name, be able to say his name, even be able to point to J out of context, but can’t write his name. He doesn’t even come close. His name actually looks like a scribble when he is asked to write it. Over time, it becomes a picture of a head and some stick arms. Then some letter like scribbles are added. Then, one big J. Then J and an S. Finally, a few months down the line, James can write his name but the J is backwards. Is it wrong? Did he pass the assessment? The quick answer is: “No.”

However, if the assessment is developmentally appropriate, it will provide the opportunity for James to show what he knows through levels of development, maybe even utilizing multimodal ways of learning and knowing. Thankfully, my Head Start program has always seen assessment, especially screenings, for what they are, a partially reliable measure of student knowledge and abilities at a single point in time. This is why our Head Start program has always relied on anecdotal evidence, collected over time, and scored on a rubric for our assessment of child outcomes.

Anecdotal evidence has always been a cornerstone of developmentally appropriate practices, as described by National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). However, that hasn’t stopped policy makers from enacting mandates that don’t acknowledge the complexity of assessment in early childhood. Perhaps they should take a page from my composition book full of notes.

The current EC/GEN Standards (PDF) expect teachers to draw on knowledge of students to make decisions about assessments. This is why I know exactly how James knows his name: as a sound, a word, a symbol, or collection of written letters. The NBPTS acknowledges the role and expertise of teachers in implementing assessments this way: “Teachers modify assessments for different learning modalities and developmental levels in ways that ensure individualization while preserving the integrity of the assessment.”

This would make it seem that perhaps teachers could be trusted to determine the best decisions about assessment based on student knowledge. Who knows: maybe soon teachers will be relied on to design assessment that enables students to demonstrate what they know and are able to do. What would that look like? Probably not a multiple choice test.

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