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Purposes and Benefits of Assessment

Purposes and Benefits of Assessment
Natasha Crosby Kile, MS
August 24, 2021

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Purposes and Benefits of Assessment, presented by Natasha Crosby Kile, MS.

Learning Outcomes

After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Recognize the different types of assessment.
  • Identify the purposes of assessment in early childhood.
  • Identify the benefits of using assessment in early childhood.


Assessment is critical in helping us as caregivers understand and support young children's learning. It's important that we understand the purposes and the benefits of assessment so that we can be ensured we have the information we need to make decisions that impact things like the curriculum, the environment that the children are in, as well as our own teaching practices. Those are all things that we'll talk about today.

For some people, just hearing the word assessment can make you feel all these weird emotions, and for some people it's negative. For others, it's positive. For some, assessment makes you want to go a little bit crazy and pull your hair out. It all depends on our personal experiences, as well as our viewpoints, including things that we've been through in the field and in our experiences working with young children. Sometimes we've been asked to do assessments on young children that weren't always developmentally appropriate, which leave a little bit of a bad taste in your mouth. What I'm hoping for today's course is that you can put those negative emotions or hesitations aside and really look at assessment with an open mind.

Assessment has become a loaded word in the field of early childhood education. Oftentimes people think of the word assessment and associate it with bias and push-down expectations that are developmentally appropriate. This means in early childhood we're expected to do things that are no developmentally appropriate and really should be taught in kindergarten, if not first grade. This also includes pressure on the children to perform and pressure on the teachers to perform and to have the children perform. However, appropriate, authentic assessment lies at the heart of learning and teaching. As we go through this information, hopefully, you'll see that you can't separate assessment from learning and teaching. They really go hand in hand.

What is Assessment?

Let's talk about what assessment is. Assessment has many definitions depending on your research and who you listen to or talk to about it. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS-SDE) define assessment as a systematic procedure for obtaining information from observation, interviews, portfolios, projects, tests, and other sources that can be used to make judgments about children's characteristics.

Think about that definition for a second. Systematic is an important word, and we're going to touch back on that word as we continue. Assessment is a procedure, implying that there's some sort of outline for how we're going to attain this information. I like this definition because it has so many different sources for obtaining that info. It's not just one piece of the puzzle. There are lots of different pieces of the puzzle used to make judgments. That's a part of this definition that sometimes catches people. But remember that we're not judging the child. We're trying to make judgments for what's appropriate or most positive for the child and how to make the child's environment and each lesson most impactful for the child. Those are the judgments that we're looking for. Assessment helps us learn all kinds of things about young children.

Carter and Nutbrown (2013) said, “Young children's awesome capacity for learning imposes a potentially overwhelming responsibility on caregivers to support, enrich, and extend that learning.” What we know is that children have an amazing capacity to learn. They are like little sponges. As you well know, they soak up everything that they come in contact with. It can be overwhelming for us as caregivers to make sure that we're doing all that we can to support, enrich, and extend that learning.

Notari-Syverson and Losardo (2004) said, “Assessment gives us information about specific parts of a child's knowledge, behavior, skill level, or personality for the purpose of making evaluative decisions.” All of these pieces help us make evaluative decisions regarding how to support, enrich, and extend learning for each individual child, as well as the class overall.

Assessment is a powerful tool and if you use it correctly it can be so impactful. It can help us determine how we can best help young children learn through the assessment process, which includes observing and documenting. As educators, we are able to make education decisions that affect each individual child as well as the group as a whole. This process is a vital part of most early childhood programs.

Assessment uses the information collected through regular, systematic observations in order to make important decisions about children's developmental and educational needs. Systematic, there's that word again. There's a system in place. Many people are already engaging in this process. Some of us are engaging in the process begrudgingly, and that's part of what we're going to talk about today. We’ll talk about how to change our viewpoint or our lens about how we view assessment so that we can begin to understand how important it is to our daily work with young children.

The process happens naturally as you're spending time watching children, participating in their play and learning, and engaging with them. For example, if you join children in the home living area and say, "Hey guys, can I play?" then really listen to what they're saying. Pick up on those nuances and make notes about what you're noticing as they're playing or vocabulary words that they're using. Another example is to note how many blocks they stacked in the block center today. All of those different things that you're already doing are part of this assessment process.

Assessing the development of young children is a key part of developing a curriculum that meets children where they are, while still providing them with enough challenge to stimulate and support their natural curiosity and desire to learn. In order to help children get to that next level, you have to first know where they're at. Assessment is the way to do that.

Essentially, assessment is a form of reflecting on those observations that we have made as educators through interacting and working with children, collecting information on what children know and really what they can do, and then using that information to guide our instruction and promote children's learning. We're going to talk more about how to do that throughout this course.

Types of Assessment

There are two main types of assessment, summative assessment, and formative assessment.

Summative Assessment

Oftentimes, summative assessments can be considered high-stakes. Summative assessments are used to gauge children's learning against a standard or a benchmark. They are often given at the end of the year and are sometimes used to make important educational decisions about children. Summative assessments are a snapshot of students' understanding which is useful for summarizing student learning. What helps me remember the difference between the two types is that summative is like a summary. Summative is the big picture or the grand summary of a child's learning.

Summative assessments aren't used a lot in early childhood programs because they're not really considered developmentally appropriate as a form of assessment for very young children. One example that you might see or use in your program is a Kindergarten Readiness Assessment or a developmental skills assessment that enables the child to move to the next classroom. I've heard of some programs doing assessments like that, where a child has to have a certain score on this assessment in order to move up to the next preschool room or the four or five room, or whatever it was for that particular program.

There's a little bit of debate within our field about whether it is developmentally appropriate or not to test children to move them up to that next level. In my experience, there have been several times where I felt that a child was ready to move up to the next class even though age-wise or chronologically he wasn't the right age to move. I'm sure we've all had those children where we're in the three-year-old class and the child's mentally five, but chronologically he's three. Then there have been other times where the child was chronologically ready to move up at age five, but developmentally I really felt like he should have been in the other room for a little bit longer.

There are all kinds of implications for using an assessment of that type for that reason. Not to say that that's wrong to do. It's just there's a little bit of debate in our profession about using those types of assessments.

Formative Assessments

That takes us to the second type of assessment which is formative assessments. These are considered low-stakes. So summative are high-stake and formative are low-stake. They're ongoing and they tend to be based on teachers' intentional observations of children which are typically during specific learning experiences and/or during everyday interactions or classroom involvement. These assessments are most useful for planning learning experiences, activities, and environments.

These are the everyday interactions that we talked about, where assessment naturally emerges from the work that you're already doing. Those would be considered more of the formative assessment. Again, these assessments are used to determine activities for the lesson plan after asking questions such as

  • What kind of things should I change out in my centers?
  • What kind of items in the science center are the kids just throwing?
  • What kind of things in the science center are they actually sitting down and investigating and trying to see what they can figure out about it or are they really actually curious about?

When I was a preschool teacher, I had many four to five-year-old children in my classroom because at the time, the ratio for our state was one to 15. I had 30 children in my classroom and I had to really be on top of what my children were interested in and what they had figured out or had gotten over the excitement of. When you have that many children in the classroom, you have to keep them engaged, active, and busy. Formative assessments were extremely helpful for me in that way.

Formative assessments are most appropriate for use with young children. Remember, summative assessments are not necessarily appropriate for age five years and under, but formative assessments are definitely appropriate as they're often more authentic, more real, and more holistic. They show a picture of the whole child as well so they can be more useful. Because young children's learning can be so varied and sometimes erratic, using multiple sources of assessment information is ideal. That goes back to what we were just talking about where children develop in such a wide range, with a variety of contexts and situations.

There's such a wide range of development when it comes to young children, that even though you might have a classroom full of three-year-olds, developmentally they're going to be on a spectrum. That's because development in learning is varied and can be erratic. The term erratic may be a little bit shocking at first, but young children's learning can be erratic. For example, if you work with infants, one day you send them home and they can't sit up or roll over and are just laying there looking at you. Then they come back on Monday and they're rolling and moving and grooving and doing all kinds of stuff. If you work with toddlers, one day you send them home and they barely say two or three words, the next week they come back and you can't get all the words down that they're speaking. In this situation, erratic means sometimes very sudden, but sometimes it's drawn out. It depends on the child.

Formative assessments can be formal, where you're actually making time to sit down and take notes during a specific time or a specific center based on a specific child. They can also be informal such as when you're out on the playground and a child is sitting under the tree with a book and you just go over and you sit down and say, "Hey, can I read with you?" You notice, wow, this child knows a lot of words in this book and you make a note of that. That would be more of an informal type of assessment that you've done.

Formative assessments can be initial or ongoing. The initial formative assessment is usually done to find out as much as we can about the child, usually at the beginning of the year or as a child enters a program. It usually involves observing, studying existing information, and reviewing home background info.

In the program that I supervised, when we had a new child join our program, we had a sheet that the parents would fill out that asked all kinds of information like, "What's your child's favorite stuffed animal? How does your child go to sleep at night? What's the bedtime routine? What's your child's favorite food? What's your child's favorite movie?" It was all background information about the child so that we could get to know them. That helped us begin those connections that are so important in early childhood. That home background information would be a part of that first initial formative assessment.

The other type of formative assessment is an ongoing formative assessment. This typically provides more in-depth information, often because it takes more time. An ongoing formative assessment isn’t a quick form that you’re through with once. It’s an ongoing thing you will look at every week, month, three months, or however it is set up in your program.

Here are some examples of published formative assessment tools often used in early childhood programs.

  • The Work Sampling System (WSS)
  • Teaching Strategies GOLD
  • HighScope COR (Child Observation Record)
  • The Creative Curriculum Developmental Continuum

Sometimes a state or funding sources will mandate that certain early childhood programs use a specific assessment tool. Sometimes your program itself mandates that. I've had the experience of working with all of these tools at one time or another in my career. All of them have definite benefits to using them and many of them are pretty easy to complete. As you know, in early childhood time is not a luxury that we have a lot of. It's always nice to have a tool that's easy to use so that when you find five minutes to sit down and work on something or do an assessment, then it's easy to figure out.

Purposes of Assessment

Let's talk about the purposes of assessment. We've talked about what assessment is and the different types of assessments, but why do we even want to use assessment? What's the purpose?

Guides Planning

Hopefully, and I want to preface all of these with hopefully, your assessment is helping guide your planning. When you become aware that an activity is ineffective, you can either eliminate the activity or modify it to be more effective. Being aware of the developmental level of each child will help in planning activities for the entire class. I know there were times where I planned an activity for my classroom and I was so excited. I could not wait for these kids to do this activity and play with this certain material or toy that I put out. However, when the kids saw it, it just flopped.

I'll never forget one time when I was setting up the dramatic play center in my classroom. I had a dramatic play center and I also had a home living center. Home living was where my kitchen was and my baby dolls and the food and all that stuff. My dramatic play was really my imagination area. If you have the space in your classroom, it's a really cool thing to do. I was at a thrift store and found a headset with a microphone like you would wear for an online meeting or for online gaming. This was way back before you could get them anywhere. I got it and thought, "Oh, that's so cool. I'll put that in home living." At the time we had a hair salon in the dramatic play area and I thought, "Oh, one of the kids can pretend like they're taking appointments. It'll be so cute. Oh my gosh, I just love it."

I went back to school the next day and I put the headset in the dramatic play area and hung around and waited to see how they were going to use it. Something happened on the other side of the room so I went and dealt with that and came back. As I was coming back, I heard, "Do you want fries with that?" It was completely opposite of how I intended for them to use the material, but they were using the material in a way that was meaningful to them. That would have been a helpful piece for assessment.

Sometimes you set up a great activity or material that you're super excited about and the kids just don't buy it. Other times you can flippantly put something out and the kids are like, "Wow, that's the coolest thing ever." Hopefully, you’re using the assessment data that you're getting from the observations and engagements with children to then go back and plan more activities like the one that the children really engaged. You may have to change activities based on the fact that it flopped, but use that data or information to guide your planning and how you set up the classroom for the children, as well as how you set up activities for them.

Shares Information with Others

Assessment shares information with others. Assessment of each child provides us as educators with knowledge that can be shared with our colleagues, administrators, families, or other stakeholders. You might be in a program that reports to your state or to the federal government, depending on reporting requirements.

Colleagues might be able to use the information as children change classrooms or to possibly benefit another group of children. It may be something as simple as, Oh, this worked for me, or this didn't work for me. This is something you might try with this child. Or this is something that we found was successful.

Administrators often times are interested in how children are learning and developing because they're the ones that are in charge of making sure that the program is doing what it should do, such as benefiting children, teaching children the things that they need to know, and showing how we as educators are using that assessment information. Are we taking that information and saying, "Okay, how can we really glean some meaning out of this data?" or are we just taking the data and just filing it away in a file cabinet?

In addition, families can work with us as the educator to help the child continue developing their skills at home. Ideally, we would be in partnerships with families to make sure that families were on the same page that we were on, as well as to make sure that we're doing everything that we can to make a seamless transition for the child.

Supports Learning and Instruction

We should be intentional when we're creating lesson plans. I would be lying to you if I said I have never filled out a lesson plan and just said, oh my gosh, what am I going to put in this square of the lesson plan? I would be telling you a fib if I said I'd never felt like that. As I grew as a professional, I became more aware of the importance of the work that I was doing. As I became more aware of the abilities of these children, I really started to be more intentional about what I put in each blank of that lesson plan. I wanted to make sure that I had a goal in mind for every lesson. Everything that I put out on the shelf had a goal in mind.

Again, just like with the headset that I put out in dramatic play, the goal might not have been met, or my hope or idea of how it should be used might not have been met. However, the children used it in a way that was meaningful for them and so that was meaningful for me. If we have a goal in mind for every lesson and if we're intentional about the things that we're putting on the lesson plan, then the assessment can help us as the educator determine if that goal has been met.

Identify Children Who May Need Additional Services

After becoming familiar with the children in your classroom, it might become apparent that a particular child might need some further assessment or additional services by another professional. Assessment is a helpful way to find out this information. If we're not gleaning some meaning out of this assessment data and saying, "Okay, what is this telling us?" then we're just filing it away and doing the assessment because it's on our job description. If this happens, then we're missing opportunities to catch some children who might need additional services, such as speech therapy, physical therapy, behavior modification help, occupational therapy, or ABA therapy.

There are many different options out there. As you know, the sooner the intervention happens, the more likely it is to be successful for young children. There might be times when a medical professional, child development specialist, or therapist will need to evaluate the child and administer a developmental screening. It depends on the situation. It also is going to depend on your particular program's policies. It is important to find out what your program's policies are in terms of that.

According to NAEYC and NAECS/SDE (2003), a screening is the use of a brief procedure or instrument designed to identify, from within a large population of children, those children who may need further assessment to verify development and/or health risks. Essentially, screening tools are developed and used on thousands of children to determine the bell curve or the norm. Then you can see if the child falls above or below that norm, then you can look at what interventions are needed. In a nutshell that's kind of how it works. Those situations might come up out of your assessment process.

Remember to consult with the family first and receive permission before, and communicate often throughout the process with the family. Discovering that your child may be in need of additional services can be really confusing for parents. It can also be alarming. It's important that we are supportive and understanding and there as the touchstone for the family. Oftentimes, medical practitioners and pediatricians may not have the same relationship with the family that we do. We work so hard in early childhood to develop that close bond and relationship, which helps with communicating with families in many situations, including those like this.

Here are some examples of commonly used published developmental screening tools.

  • The Ages & Stages Questionnaire®, Third Edition (ASQ-3)
  • Batelle® Developmental Inventory™, Third Edition (BDI-3)
  • Brigance®
  • Denver II
  • Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning, Fourth Edition (DIAL™-4)
  • Early Screening Inventory, Third Edition (ESI™-3)
  • Learning Accomplishment Profile™ – Diagnostic (LAP-D)

There are several of those that I have actually used that have been really helpful, easy to complete, and easy to understand. That's helpful when you are trying to get information about a child. Depending on your state and your program, you may have a co-op or other group that would come in and assess the children using these tools.

Evaluates the Classroom/Program

Assessments can also help evaluate the classroom or the program. The Environmental Rating Scales (ERS) is a published tool used to evaluate the classroom and the program. The ERS includes four scales that assess early childhood environments.

  • Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS-3)
  • Infant/Toddler Environmental Rating Scale (ITERS-3)
  • Family Child Care Environmental Rating Scale – Revised (FCCERS-R)
  • School-Age Care Environmental Rating Scale Updated (SACERS)

Using the Environmental Rating Scales, you may find you evaluate the quality of your environment or the learning engagement level of your classroom specifically. For example, what materials do you have on the shelf? What centers do you have? How's the program set up?

While the Environmental Rating Scales assesses your environment, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, also known as CLASS, assesses educator-student interactions. The class assessment actually assesses the interactions that the student has with the caregiver and vice versa. It looks at the overall tone of the program or the classroom. Is it a positive place to be? Is it a happy kind of environment for children?

In addition to the CLASS, there is also the Program Administration Scale (PAS) that measures leadership and management functions of center-based early care and education programs. The PAS assesses programs for benefits that they offer their staff and levels of pay. Are there different levels of responsibility that staff can work themselves up to? Do they encourage and reimburse for education?

  • Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) assesses educator-student interactions.
  • Program Administration Scale (PAS) measures both leadership and management functions of center-based early care and education programs.

Components of Assessment

What are the different parts of assessment in terms of what is involved in the assessment process?  There are four components, including observation, written records, portfolios, and family information.


We talked a little bit about how observation is included in the process of assessment. Observation is gathering unbiased information about each child, noting what the child is doing without any interpretation or explanation about why he's doing it. Observation is the basis of what educators do when working with children. The unbiased or without interpretation or explanation piece is really important here because when you're observing young children, you're simply documenting what you see.

It's very tempting though to interpret what we see, especially when observation is used to try to understand children's behavior or challenging behaviors. It's very tempting for us to say, "Well, he threw a fit because someone took his toy," or "He hit somebody because he didn't like it." If you take any kind of training or class on observation, that's one of the major things that they'll talk about is being unbiased or non-opinionated. Your opinion should not be included in observations.

Written Records

Observations include written records. These are objective, also known as unbiased, recordings of the observation that should be included in the child's portfolio and in the educator's notes to help plan for future activities and help them remember what they have seen. Written records may include rating scales, checklists, anecdotal notes, tallies, and other forms and observations recorded by the educator. Being objective is really important as well because if these are in the child's portfolio, that means the parents will see them. You don't want to have something written about a young child that has your judgment or your opinion in it. Sharing that with the parent could be a very sticky situation.

When I was a young, unseasoned teacher, I wrote a note to a child's parent and it said that he hit someone for no reason. The parent taught me a very good lesson about the fact that it was probably for a reason. I just didn't see what the reason was and that really wasn't fair to write on a note to a parent that their child did something for no reason. That's a lesson that I've carried with me as I've gone on in my career. I've tried to teach other people about it too because that was my opinion in that documentation. It is very important that we keep our opinions to ourselves. We should remain objective in those moments when we're observing and doing written records.


Many of you may already do portfolios for your children, or work with your children to complete them. If you don't do them or if you've not heard of them, they're chronological collections of written records combined with samples of the child's work. This might include photographs, artwork, or dictated stories, where the child tells you the story and you write it down. It also might include video records, audio records, and other items that you feel would give an accurate picture of the child's development.

One of the most fun things I've ever done as a teacher involved audio recordings of children singing a song for Mother's Day. I recorded all the children singing a special Mother's Day song to their mother, grandmother, aunt, or whoever was an important female or another person in their life if they didn't have a female in their home life situation. It was the most tender-hearted thing that I've ever done. I had mothers, grandmothers, and aunties in tears when it was time to play those recordings at our Mother's Day breakfast. That would be an example of an audio recording you might include in a portfolio. It could also be a child singing a nursery rhyme that they finally learned all the verses to.

Portfolios are designed to help the educator in the assessment process. They allow us to go back to the beginning of the year and see progress, such as at the beginning of the year she was attempting to write her name versus now at Christmas, she can write all of the letters of her name. Also, it's a huge benefit to be able to show parents the growth of the child. There are so many times that parents came to me and said, "Well, what are you actually doing with my child because all I see is that she's just playing all day?" When you pull out their portfolio and say, " I know that when you come in to pick her up you're concerned because she's always in art, but look at what she's doing in art." Or, "I know you're concerned because every time you come to pick him up he's always in blocks. But look at what he's learning in the block center, look at the growth here." You have something visual that you can show which can make a huge difference to a parent.

You can also use portfolios with other teachers. As a child moved up from another class to the preschool class, we would get the portfolio from that other classroom. At the end of the child's time at our school, we would have a really thick portfolio with stuff from infancy all the way up to preschool. It was very touching for the parents and nice to have, but you could really see the child's growth over time. That's actually what a portfolio is designed to show. There are three different types of portfolios.

One type of portfolio is a learning portfolio. That is a selection of a child's work that's used to evaluate the child's development and learning process. Often, it's referred to as a working portfolio, meaning it's ongoing and we're always adding to it. We might be modifying some of the things so it's very fluid and not static.

Another type is a pass-along portfolio which is what I referred to that we sent to the next classroom. It is a collection of work samples, narrative reports, and other evidence intended to be passed along to future educators for the purpose of providing a continuous assessment record. When I worked for the public schools, we would send a copy of the child's preschool portfolio to their kindergarten school. If we didn’t know who the child’s teacher was going to be, we would address it to “The kindergarten teacher of Natasha Kile” so the kindergarten teacher would have some information about the child that was joining the class. I did hear from some of the kindergarten teachers that it was helpful.

The third type of portfolio is the private portfolio. This sounds very secretive and spy-like, but actually, it's just a collection of information about a child that's considered confidential and is only for you, your supervisor, and other people that work with the child. I’ve used a private portfolio in situations where we had some pretty significant challenging behavior from a young child, when we had children who we might suspect were having troubles at home, or situations where there was something going on within the home. Sometimes we had actually referred them or called the hotline on them. This was a good place to keep this kind of documentation.

These items were not just placed with a child’s artwork or other work samples.  The hotline reporting form or other documentation of challenging situations were stored in the private portfolio. This allowed us to look at the documentation over time and see if there were any patterns, trends, or triggers. We could also look to see what the antecedent to the behavior was and what the consequence of the behavior was.

We used a little notebook that we would keep just for that child in a locked cabinet so that we would have the documentation and information if we ever needed it to assist in getting the child services.  These could be for the therapist, social worker, or whoever was working with the child.

I do caution you about sending the private portfolio on to the next teacher because sometimes it can cause labeling to happen. For example, if a child was considered challenging in the three-year-old room and we send this information to the next teacher, the new teacher may have concerns about the child before they enter the classroom. We want to give that child a fresh start. I would caution you about passing on the private portfolio unless it's really needed.

Family Information

Families are the best source of information concerning their child. After all, they are the expert on their child. You might be an expert on child development, preschool, literacy, or other things, but the parent is the expert on that child and always will be. It's very important that we get all the information we can get from parents. Not all of us have parents that are very involved. If you've got parents that are willing to share, take all of it that you can. The more information you have, the better prepared you're going to be to engage and enrich that child's learning and really connect with that child and their family.

The information that you get from the family could consist of interviews and any information provided by the family that you can include in the assessment process. Families should be consulted and included in every stage of the assessment. Several of those assessment tools that we talked about have parent components to them.

In the program I supervised for many years, we would send home a blank copy of the assessment tool to the family and ask them to fill it out based on what they had seen at home. We'd fill the same one out at school and then compare the two. Some people might say, "Oh, I would never do that because parents will always rate their child so high, and they're not going to be honest. Parents always have a rose-colored view of their child." In my experience, I have noticed that it's the opposite. I've noticed that parents are actually harder on their children than we are as early childhood professionals because a lot of times parents don't have the education that we have and the knowledge to say, "Oh gosh, that's not developmentally appropriate to expect that yet." Your experience might be a little bit different, but in mine, most of the time parents rated their children lower than the teacher.

It's always so nice to have parent input, not only for the value that the input itself provides, but for the benefits of making the parent feel included. It treats the parent as the expert on that child and enables you to really show the parent that we value what they have to say about their child and the expertise that they bring to the table.

When we combine these four components of assessment, then we should have an accurate and authentic picture of each child's development, knowledge of what the child does well, as well as any issues that might need to be addressed. Through thoughtful and careful assessment, we can plan curriculum to meet the developmental needs of each child in our care.

It's very important that we understand the accuracy and authentic piece. I’ve used the word authentic a couple of times throughout this class, and I want to make sure that everybody understands that. Authentic means real. There's a major difference between doing an assessment just to do an assessment, and then doing an assessment to actually get some real, authentic, meaningful data or information from it. That's that authentic piece.

Principles of Assessment

Due to the increased accountability and pressure put on educators and programs to show increased performance and achieved learning goals, early childhood professionals must keep the principles of assessment at the forefront of their minds. There are four principles of assessment that we will talk about. We have to keep these at the forefront of our minds because it is very easy to succumb to that pressure or to those inappropriate accountability standards. Sometimes you may be asked to do things or assess children in a way that you feel is not appropriate or that's developmentally inappropriate. It's important that we remember the principles of assessment so that we have some real research-based information to go back to our directors or our curriculum people and say, "I feel like this assessment could be done a better way, and this is why I feel that way." Sometimes we don't know what we don't know, even if we’re a director, curriculum specialist, or have another role. It's important now that we've got this information and now that we know better, that we do better.

Assessment Takes Place in a Natural Setting

The first principle of assessment is that assessment takes place in a natural setting. When you first read this, you might think you have to assess the child outside in the trees. That's not necessarily what that means. It could mean that, but assessment is actually part of the daily routine that's natural and comfortable for the child. The children are familiar with the educator that's interacting with them. They don't mind when that educator writes down comments or notes or observations. It's not where children are removed from the classroom to be tested. They're observed in the classroom doing everyday activities that they always do, participating in routines and rituals, and classroom activities and events. Then we use that information to complete the assessment of their development and their learning.

About 17 years ago when I was a preschool teacher and assessment was becoming the hot topic, my director asked me to begin testing or assessing the children. At this point, I was a brand-new teacher and I said, "Okay, great. How do I do it? What do I do?” I'd never done it before. She said, "Here's what we're going to do. I'm going to come down and take a child out of your classroom. I'm going to take them down to my office and see what they know. Things like how many colors they know, how many shapes, and what are the letters they know. Then you're going to do the stuff about social-emotional.”

When she first told me that was how we were going to do it, I kind of had an eye twitch. Something didn’t sound right about that. So, I said, "Oh gosh, are we sure that that's the best way to do it? Is there a way that maybe you could do it in the classroom?" Of course, that wasn't going to happen at that time. Again, this was about 17 years ago. It was very challenging. We figured out that wasn’t the best way when 26 of my 30 children failed their assessment.

She came back to me and said, "Oh, Natasha, we've got a problem because 26 of your 30 children failed. I just don't know. We can't refer 26 out of 30 kids." I said, "Okay, well, I think maybe it's because of the way we're doing it. Let's try this and see what happens." I started completing the assessments and I did it within everyday activities that I was already doing in the classroom. I could already pretty much tell you who knew what based on the circle time conversation that we had that morning, what I'd seen in art, or what I'd seen in home living that day or whatever. When we started filling it out that way it changed things dramatically. We had one child out of 30 who came up as possibly needing some sort of intervention. Just that example goes to show you that that natural setting, or what's typical or natural for the child, is the best place to do those assessments.

Assessment Takes Place over a Period of Time

Assessment takes place over a period of time. It's recommended at least two times a year for preschool-aged children. Best practice is to complete an assessment three times a year. This includes once at the beginning to measure the child's developmental level (or when they enter the program). This is also known as an initial assessment. The second assessment is a mid-year review and the third is to document the progress that the child has made over time. For infants and toddlers, assessment has to be done more often than twice a year because they develop so quickly over those first two years. If we wait and only do assessments two times a year, there's so much that we'll miss.

Assessment Happens As the Child Goes About Daily Activities

Assessment happens as the child goes about daily activities. When we've planned developmentally appropriate activities for our classroom, then the child can be observed as he participates in those activities and we will learn the child's capabilities as we observe those things happening. As we notice that we've not observed a child demonstrating a particular skill, then we might plan a specific activity to spark the child's interest and engage him in play. This will help us determine if he's not interested or if he can't actually do the skill.

This happens a lot with children who tend to only go to one center all the time. For example, you might have a couple of children that only go to blocks or only go to art. If you have a child who only goes to the block center it can be hard to say if he knows how to hold a pencil or a marker or how to do a 10-piece puzzle if you don't ever see him in those centers. Sometimes assessment can help you to know what things to change up to spark that child's interest or curiosity.

Assessment is Developmentally Appropriate

It's easy to observe children in developmentally appropriate activities without distracting them or making them feel like they're performing for us. With developmentally appropriate activities, you can avoid situations like calling a child over and asking the child to draw a line or a circle or to stand on one foot. These skills can be observed as a child draws in the art area, plays hopscotch on the playground, or interacts with other children in dramatic play. Those are examples of ways we can get that same information but through the natural setting.

Validity and Authenticity

As I previously said, in order to have a valid and authentic assessment, children should be observed over multiple lengths of time, during different times of the day in different activities, and in their natural environment. Instead of placing a child at a table to interact with materials that we've staged, observe the child using the materials in a learning center without our interference. That way it's more authentic to the situation and is that natural setting again.

Benefits of Assessment

That brings us to the last part about the benefits of assessment. It's important that we reframe and make a new lens about how we view assessment. We need to take an interest in the art of studying young children and understanding how the whole child develops. Assessment in the early childhood environment is an essential ingredient in providing quality care.

Assessment Celebrates Growth

Assessment is an opportunity to celebrate the child's growth over time, developmental achievements, as well as skill acquisition.

Assessment Identifies the Child’s Strengths and Needs

Assessment identifies the child's strengths as well as their needs. Remember that assessment is supposed to point out what the child does well, and then pick up on anything that the child might need more help with. We're able to determine strengths and needs by observing individual children in multiple settings and situations. Likewise, we should observe children in areas where a child, or sometimes an entire class, needs extra help in developing a skill or a specific developmental area.

Assessment Provides the Child an Opportunity to Be Part of the Process

Preschool children are capable of choosing what they put in their portfolios. I've had children who were taking part in making a project, and I said, "Hey, can I put that in your portfolio?" They said, "No, I want to take it home." So, I said, "Okay, I can take a picture of it." I would put the picture in the portfolio instead of the item. When children are allowed to decide on the contents of the portfolio, they accept ownership of that and begin to develop an interest in adding to their portfolio and what it means.

Assessment Helps the Educator Get to Know the Child Better

As we observe and assess young children, we begin to understand their behavior, pick up on their individual interests, and get to know their abilities. This helps us plan activities and a learning environment to engage and support each individual child, as well as the whole group.

Assessment Helps the Educator Improve their Professional Practice

It helps us improve our professional practice and become better teachers. As we are assessing and paying attention to young children's developmental progress and learning, we can understand which activities and experiences were successful and which ones weren't. This helps us refine our knowledge about child development, individual children, and best practice. Then we can use the assessment data to improve our teaching over time.

Assessment Supports School and Family Partnerships

Assessment helps support school and family partnerships as educators communicate important milestones in children's development to families. It also provides opportunities for educators and parents to work together to support children as they grow.


In conclusion, assessment is a good thing. It's not something to be afraid of. It's a natural part of what you're already doing every day to help children be successful. It helps you as an educator know your children better so that you can adapt your curriculum and teaching to be more effective. It provides the framework for your practice and helps you grow as a professional. I hope that this class has changed your view or at least helped put a little positive light on your view of assessment in young children.


Bates, C., Schenck, S., and Hoover, H. (2019). Quick and easy notes: Practical strategies for busy teachers. Teaching Young Children, 13 (1).

Bedrova, E. & Leong, D.J. (2018). Common assessment terms and how to use them. Spotlight on Young Children: Observation and Assessment. NAEYC.

Carter, C. & Nutbrown, C. (2013). The tools of assessment: Watching and learning. London: Sage.

Kile, N. (2020). Observation and assessment: Arkansas CDELS. University of Arkansas: Early Care and Education Projects.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECS/SDE). (2003). Early childhood curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation: Building an effective, accountable system in programs for children birth through age 8. Retrieved from: ttp://

Notari-Syverson, A., & Losardo, A. (2004). What assessment means to early childhood educators.  Exchange (159), 68-72. 

Riley-Ayers, S. (2018). Excerpt from Spotlight on young children: Observation and assessment. NAEYC.


Kile, N. (2021). Purposes and benefits of assessment. - Early Childhood Education, Article 23738. Available at

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natasha crosby kile

Natasha Crosby Kile, MS

Natasha Crosby Kile, MS is the Early Childhood Education Coordinator for the Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, AR, and works as a certified trainer, writer, coach, and consultant for both the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University. Natasha has over 27 years of experience working in the field of Early Childhood as a teacher, supervisor, trainer, and mentor. She holds a Bachelor's of Science in Child Development from the University of Arkansas and a Master's of Science in Childhood Services from Arkansas State University. Natasha has served as a leader in many areas including serving on the board of the Arkansas Early Childhood Association. Natasha has a passion for training early childhood professionals and finds herself right at home in a group of 5 to 5,000 teachers that are eager to facilitate the growth of young children and support their families. She is a distinguished expert and was named Arkansas Early Childhood Professional of the Year in 2012.

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