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Holistic Formative Assessments. The New Wave.

In education, formative assessments are extremely popular. Schools that use formative assessment show gains in academic achievement for students. For previously underachieving students, the gains are more pronounced due to the impact of formative assessments. 

Formative assessments happen regularly in classrooms where a student’s progress is evaluated on a daily or weekly basis. Educators are able to obtain information, offer feedback and adapt instruction accordingly.

Formal formative assessments use well-defined grade rubrics, while informal assessments use methods such as observations, notes, etc. We have covered formative assessment best practices in this post, with each practice varying in its range of formality.

Summative assessments cap either side of formative assessments in every school year. The student’s progress is measured at certain times of the year, to acquire an understanding of the sum total of what the student has learned since the last summative assessment. 

Standardized assessments are less frequent than summative assessments. They usually happen just once per year or every few years, beginning in grade 3 in both Canada and the US. 

Diagnostic tests or screeners are the rarest of the bunch. They are not required by all jurisdictions or school systems. But many do require a diagnostic test for entry to kindergarten or primary school. They are sometimes known as pre-assessments, as they offer information to educators about a student’s level of knowledge prior to instruction. 


What Are Holistic Formative Assessments?

Compared to formative assessments, much less is known about holistic assessments.

Holistic Assessments Have the Following Characteristics

  1. Assess Learning that occurs in multiple locations. The ability to look beyond the learning that occurs in the four walls of the classroom, and additional looks to understand and assess the learning that occurs at home, outside and in the community.
  2. Include multiple perspectives. Going beyond an assessment of learning from the teacher’s perspective, but including parents, caregivers, librarians, Elders, and community members in the assessment process.  Reaching out to understand the learning opportunities for every child, from multiple perspectives.
  3. Assessing Beyond cognition.  Not only assessing the concepts and skills learned,  but also looking to understand a students’ ‘access’ to learning, ‘participation’  in learning and ‘opportunities and supports’ for learning that always impact a      student’s ability to succeed academically in the classroom.


Holistic Formative Assessments Are Multimodal

Holistic formative assessments retain all the previously mentioned attributes of holistic learning. In addition, both formative and summative assessments are incorporated in the holistic formative assessment framework. Such assessments can also be used as diagnostic tests for incoming kindergarten or grade 1 students.

Thus with holistic formative assessments, it’s more than just a single assessment. Rather, it’s a comprehensive system that focuses on a broader understanding of learning. 

It casts a wide net in trying to understand the whole child. It accounts for multiple learning perspectives from both inside and outside the classroom.

Subsequently, holistic formative assessment supports the development of an effective, personalized learning strategy for all students. New holistic assessments often follow at the end of the learning period to reevaluate the growth and development of the child.

Formative assessments are interspersed between such holistic assessments to help educators make adjustments in real-time. This provides adequate checks and balances to ensure the progress of every child. 


Thus, holistic formative assessments dig deep and span wide

They dig deep for information that would not otherwise be available. Information such as other languages spoken by children at home and in the community, surveys from parents and caregivers on what opportunities for learning are available at home, and/or student perspectives on their learning strengths and challenges.

They span wide in that they do not consider simply one learning domain or examine only the current school year in isolation. Rather, if there are any missed learning opportunities from week-to-week, month-to-month, or even from the previous school year or home experiences, these are quickly and systematically addressed.  

Other than the structural aspects of the holistic formative assessment, what are its underlying philosophical principles? The holistic view on education provides the answer.


The Holistic View on Education

Holistic View on Education

The holistic approach to education holds the view that a student is a whole person with a mind, body, emotions and spirit. 

In the context of early learning, it focuses on the development of the whole child, placing equal emphasis on cognitive, physical, emotional and spiritual development. The roots of this pedagogical concept are in Indigenous education, who first adopted this method of learning for children in their communities. 

Holistic learning promotes balanced relationships between people, and between people and their environment. A safe and nurturing environment is provided where learning takes place. 

The holistic view on education requires a complete understanding of a young student’s learning preferences, strengths and circumstances. It uses holistic assessments to acquire such an understanding.

Holistic assessments can also support the promotion and revitalization of local languages and cultures for students in the classrooms. They provide a comprehensive view of a child’s learning by gathering input from the child, teacher, parent and Elder about learning in the home, school, community and on the land.


Where Holistic Meets Formative

Where holistic meets formative

The connection between holistic and formative assessments happens when the former is done frequently and linked to instruction. 

The individual results from holistic formative assessments are most effective when linked to personalized learning activities that can be done in the classroom, in the home, and in the community.  This is the part where it ceases to be just a holistic formative assessment, and becomes a tool to support equity and inclusion in education. 

When recommending activities for learning and assessment, the focus is as much on strengths and interests, as it is on any learning opportunities or deficits. 

The link between summative and formative assessments are usually left to educators to figure out. However, holistic formative assessments ensure that the results are always tied to a personalized course of action. This allows continuous support for the student’s educational needs. 

An example of how a holistic formative assessment can be administered, is how Sprig Language program integrates an on-screen off-screen approach.  The holistic assessment of early literacy happens on screen with the student,  uncovers new insights about the child’s motivations to learn. Such a wealth of information can be used to support more effective instruction in the classroom and support targeted and engaging learning at home.

The assessment and digital learning material can be accessed using a tablet, a phone, a PC or any other device. Physical classroom materials such as storybooks, language development cards and other resources accompany the assessment. 

Some of the materials can be used in the holistic assessment itself, others can be used for activities that are recommended by the assessment. These activities are most effective when they double as formative assessments (e.g., quizzes or games).


The Benefits of Holistic Formative Assessments

The benefits of holistic formative assessments

The structural benefit of holistic formative assessments is tremendous. It ensures that there is a comprehensive, 360 degree understanding of a single student spanning multiple school years.  This holistic understanding uncovers new insights about each learner, informing personalized instruction in ways that would not have been previously possible.

Here are some other benefits of adopting the holistic formative assessment framework.

Uncovers New Insights

Teachers will glean new insights from holistic formative assessments which would otherwise not be identified in traditional formative assessments. Information such as learning interests, learning opportunities outside of the classroom, and unique learning styles all emerge out of a holistic assessment and broader understanding of the student.

It allows educators to take a strength-based approach to instruction. It also allows them to build on the newly identified student strengths and interests to address the student’s needs and challenges, which would remain hidden without this holistic approach to assessment. 

Useful in Curriculum Mapping

Holistic formative assessments can be tied to the learning outcomes of any local curriculum. Curriculum mapping is a big challenge for educators in North America. Oklahoma State University published a paper that identified the following four improvement areas in order to achieve successful curriculum mapping.

1) sufficient and adequate training for mapping

2) provision of adequate resources and assistance 

3) constant communication about the initiative 

4) monitoring the implementation process


All four areas can be addressed with the guidance of the holistic formative assessment framework. As it’s a whole system of assessment, it comes with the necessary professional development and resources to implement the assessments. 

As the initiative is rolled out, the use of technology enables constant communication between educators and between educators and other relevant parties such as school administrators and parents. It enables personalized instruction for students grounded in a holistic understanding.

Lastly, there is the consistent recording of data, be it the completion of activities, or new data points from ongoing assessments. Especially in early learning, formative holistic assessments monitor the progress of students in their early grade classrooms. They improve the relevance of instruction to address the literacy and numeracy learning opportunities.

In fact, such assessments can be linked to state or provincial curriculum and standards for preschool and Pre-K-3. Sprig Learning is all too familiar with such a process, having done it for multiple provinces and states across North America. 

Inclusive in Nature

Holistic formative assessments are inclusive. They are important for mixed ability classrooms. They allow students to progress at their own pace. 

Learning can be accelerated for those students who grasp concepts and demonstrate skills faster than others. Learning can also be slowed down for those students who have to first close a certain gap in understanding, that will expedite their learning in the future. 

 Mitigates Bias

Holistic formative assessments reduce the likelihood of implicit bias by being more culturally responsive, educationally comprehensive, and having a system in place with multiple opportunities for assessments. It’s a topic we have covered extensively in this article on dealing with implicit bias.

In order to properly assess a student, it’s important to understand their learning needs, interests and familiarity or anxiety with the assessment process itself. Otherwise, they are at risk of being inaccurately assessed without having a comprehensive understanding in place. 

It’s the holistic formative assessments that allow educators to access this information, where they themselves have a better understanding of the student and their learning environment, and can tailor support and instruction to the learning needs and strengths of the student. An equitable result for all young students is the outcome. 


The Holistic Booster to Formative Assessments

The holistic booster to formative assessments

There are so many benefits to holistic assessments and holistic learning. Each of these 15 holistic learning characteristics positively influences the learning experience for early learners. 

It’s when holistic assessments are combined with formative assessments, the true power of assessments is unleashed. Research shows that holistic assessments improve student outcomes and result in a more equitable learning experience. 

The holistic development of students is a much-desired component of high-quality early childhood education, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Most teachers are already using formative assessments in either a formal or informal capacity. 

If these assessments are driven by holistic approaches and placed in a structured setting, their full potential is realized. They are more acutely informed by a systematic and extensive analysis of student activity and learning perspectives. 

Contact us to explore how holistic assessments can be added to your assessment strategy. 


Dealing with Implicit Bias in Early Learning Assessments

Sprig Learning builds personalized, culturally relevant early learning assessments and resources that support schools, teachers, families, and students. 

In building these early learning programs, there are certain measures we take to provide the best learning experience for students. One of them is reducing implicit bias. 

Bias is inherent to all of us and is caused by personal experience, experience of others, cultural norms, the information we process, and the values in our education systems. Typically, we hear of two primary forms of bias:

1. Implicit bias. This is an automatic or unconscious reaction someone has toward other people. These attitudes and stereotypes can negatively impact our understanding, actions, and decision-making.

2. Explicit bias. This is the traditional conceptualization of bias. With explicit bias, individuals are aware of their prejudices and attitudes toward certain groups. Positive or negative preferences for a particular group are conscious. 

For this blog, we will focus on implicit bias and its impact on education. In early learning, educators and staff all have implicit biases when supporting their students. Given that bias is a product of our experiences, it is not desirable nor possible to eliminate. 

However, understanding and identifying bias, and its systemic impact on actions and outcomes at scale, is indeed possible — and essential in our efforts to counteract the harmful effects of bias on learning in the classroom.  Because the early years are a crucial juncture in the life of schoolchildren, the onus is on us to mitigate the effects of implicit bias as much as possible.


What is the Role of Implicit Bias in Early Learning

Given that educators have such an important part to play in the development and growth of young children, implicit bias affects their understanding of situations, decisions and actions. 

With implicit bias, the educator may be unaware that biases, rather than the facts of a situation, are driving his or her decision-making. This behavior is often labelled interchangeably as ‘unconscious bias’.

It is something that is not limited to people either. Implicit bias permeates throughout education resources, assessments, content, and processes, tracing back to their creator. 

The risk with implicit bias is not just how they make students feel, but also the impact the bias produces.

Affecting students’ attitudes and feelings can discourage early learners  from expressing themselves, and also creates the potential for students to learn from and develop their own biases themselves. 

Bias also affects learning by impacting the quality of assessments. When the outcome of assessments are affected negatively by implicit bias, it impacts the future learning outcomes of students.


Mitigating Early Learning Implicit Biases

While removing all bias may be inescapable, there are things that can be done to mitigate it.


Use a Mix of Formal and Informal Formative Assessments

  • National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends the use of both formal and informal screening to assess children’s growth across all domains of development and learning. 

Indeed, there is a time and place for both types of assessments. Formal assessments occur at regular intervals in a structured setting, while it’s best if informal assessments occur every single day and are integrated into the teaching process .

How it mitigates bias: The more singular and isolated an assessment is, the greater the reliance on it to support the child’s learning and to determine the outcome of the student. 

Screenings are necessary to detect where a child is in terms of their learning development, but they should be complimented by formative assessments, which can be both formal and informal in nature.

With ongoing and regular opportunities to assess throughout the school year, it’s more likely that educators acquire a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of all the situational factors that affect learning in the student’s life.


Use Culturally Responsive Assessments

  • NAEYC further recommends that assessments be culturally, linguistically and individually appropriate and address all of children’s development, progress, strengths and needs.

The average classroom is more diverse than it has ever been, so it’s important to develop culturally responsive assessments. Looking at data from 2015, nearly 1 in 4 kids who attended public schools in the US spoke a language other than English in their home. In total, 176 different languages are spoken in New York City public schools. 

As demonstrated above, when left unconscious – biases can influence assessments for early learners, altering the potential learning trajectories for children. For example, this can sometimes lead to identification and assignment of an Individualized Education Program (IEP), labeling the learner for the remainder of their school career. 

While the extra funding and support that an IEP provides has plenty of benefit for learners in need, this labeling has also proven to lower self esteem, lower expectations from teachers and parents, and peer issues.

Outside of potential bias in the development of these screens and instruments themselves, there is implicit bias during the delivery of the assessment as well. Canadian researchers Ungerlieder and Riley document situations where teachers have lower expectations for Indigenous students in their classrooms relative to their non-Indigenous students. 

Lowered expectations often influence teachers’ appraisals of Indigenous students and introduce bias into their scoring practices.

How it mitigates bias: Culturally responsive assessment involves being focused on the student, and ensuring their involvement throughout the entire assessment process. Many children grow up speaking a language other than English at home and are exposed to a variety of cultures and transitions that are not always visible in a school setting.

When students are able to see their language and culture reflected in the curriculum and classroom assessments, they are more likely to engage and be successful.

When cultural and linguistic experiences are accounted for in assessments, this improves the accuracy of the results and ultimately increases student learning.


Make the Assessment Process More Comprehensive

  • Sprig Learning recommends a holistic, 360 degree view of early learning experiences in the home, school and community. To do this effectively, and reduce the potential fear and anxiety around assessments, teachers help provide context for the material prior to the assessment.  This includes befriending a puppet who plays a key role at assessment time and practicing  the 3-point scale used during the assessment.

Connecting the school to the home and the larger community is so important because it helps to fill in the blanks when it comes to understanding a child. The assessment itself is connected to the rest of school activities. It compliments the daily routine in an early years classroom. From the student’s perspective, assessment looks and feels like a normal day. 

How it mitigates bias: By collecting different perspectives on learning from the teachers, parents, other caregivers and most importantly the students themselves, this limits the potential bias in the overall, holistic assessment.. 

When it comes to the actual assessment, students are able to interact with the technology directly (like an iPAD) and demonstrate their learning. This reduces any subjective observations, and possible implicit bias, that a teacher may bring to that observation. As teachers sit beside and  guide the student through the assessments, they are also able to observe the child and their learning. 

Observational assessment is extremely important.  Over the course of the year, teachers are also able to track the learning portfolios of children, noticing the body of work they have completed to identify strengths and learning gaps. 

Dr. Grace from the Little School talks about the importance of observations and portfolios in assessing children. She calls portfolios “a collection of authentic assessments” and says that observations can help educators to arrange the environment and develop curricular plans and materials.

Thus, by adopting a comprehensive view and by using portfolios as a part of assessments, it’s easy to keep everyone in the loop about the progress of the child.


Reliance on Standardization and Implicit Bias

Standardized tests are normative in that they compare a child to their peers who are of the same age. Some standardized tests can further drill down results by gender, socio-economic and cultural background. 

But not every standardized test will use exact segmentation for fair comparison. Even if they do, such standardized tests are often meant to discriminate between groups of students, but not always test for behaviors that are educationally relevant. 

Relying on standardized tests alone does not yield direct information for choosing curricular content, deciding on environmental factors and guiding instructional strategies. 

In fact, when comparison is the only learning goal, there is a higher likelihood of implicit bias. 

Afterall, it’s meant to only categorize students into different levels, but not actually make the connection to differentiated instruction that supports individuals and groups of students.


Alternate Approaches to Reduce Implicit Bias

Alternative approaches are beneficial when it comes to early learning assessments.  

A comprehensive and holistic approach can be undertaken if there is adequate collaboration between teachers and caregivers. It’s something Sprig embraces wholeheartedly. 

When there is a comprehensive outlook on childhood development, the interrelationships between developmental domains are evident. While standardization targets everything as a separate subject, holistic learning looks at the linkage between multiple domains such as: motor skill development, oral language, numeracy and literacy. It makes use of portfolio and dynamic assessments, which are considered alternate approaches.

Portfolio assessments usually involve activities in and out of the classroom. Different learning materials such as animated stories and levelled readers are used, so there are enough things to interest early learners as they progress through the curriculum.

Dynamic assessments consider both the role of the educator and the child in assessments. Instead of just being an observer, they play a supportive role during the assessment whereby the students can also use the assessment as a learning opportunity.

It reduces the Hawthorne Effect, which is a type of bias where individuals being studied modify their behavior because of the awareness of being observed. 

It’s why dynamic assessments are so important where educators take the trouble to immerse themselves in the process as well, so assessments feel like an activity, and not a test.


Uncovering Old Bias to Move Forward

Holistic assessments accept that learning is a journey that begins at birth and continues throughout the early childhood years into adolescence. 

Two students may get different marks on a summative assessment despite both of them having completed all homework, tasks and activities related to the assessment. 

In such scenarios, it is likely that there was a gap in prior grade levels. This too can surface in the form of implicit bias, where we take completion as a sign of understanding, not realizing that the learning material did not always make sense to all students.

In the case two students have different rates of completion of tasks and activities, such discrepancy can often be explained by skill gaps. It’s not the missed work that is producing different results, but often the different skill gaps that were not previously addressed.

Based on any mistakes, it’s possible to target instruction and provide enough scaffolding to young students to help them address those mistakes and move on to the next grade level. But it doesn’t address the root of the problem—old implicit biases.

Rather than measuring standards from the current grade level, holistic assessments look at the whole life of the child to uncover missed learning opportunities. 

But is there even such a thing as missed learning? We round up this article with a case study.


A Case Study to Reduce Implicit Bias

Lindsay Unified School District (LUSD) in California looked at growth data segmented by groups such as English Learner, Migrant and Homeless. These groups had made significant progress during the pandemic compared to the rest of the groups. 

Had LUSD only relied on national reports focusing only on learning loss, it would have missed this opportunity to provide personalized support to groups that were showing promise. LUSD uses real-time data from formative assessments to personalize learning at the classroom level.

Such a case demonstrates a strengths-based approach where the bias is not in uncovering a threat in time, but rather missing an opportunity. It reminds us that there is so much hope in igniting the passion of learning in young students if only we are able to mitigate bias.

If you have not considered alternate approaches to standardized assessments, there is a good case to be made for them. Secondly, whatever approach you adopt, it’s important to supplement the process with equally diverse learning materials.

Learn more about how Sprig’s AI Engine reduces implicit bias in classrooms.

What You Should Know about Assessments In Early Childhood Education.

Sprig Learning helps every child succeed by uncovering and supporting their unique learning strengths, needs, and interests. One of the ways this is achieved is through formative classroom assessments. 

What are assessments? Every teacher uses them to some extent to assess learning. At the very least, report cards and progress report cards are issued as early as kindergarten and continue until high-school graduation. Most schools also participate in some form of standardized testing at certain grades. 

The shortcomings of current assessments are aplenty, but they are often brought to the surface whenever learning has been disrupted. 

COVID-19 is one such disruption. Many words, such as “learning loss”, are used to describe what happened as a result of the missed learning opportunities caused by school closures.

Across the world, we know that learning for 1.6 billion students was disrupted by the recent pandemic. While remote and hybrid learning struggled to engage many students, it is estimated that 463 million students had no access to virtual learning whatsoever.

A significant portion of young students in the US are said to be a minimum of 1, 3 and even 6 months behind where they would usually be at this time in the school year. Distance learning has affected disadvantaged communities disproportionately, as those neighborhoods have had a higher likelihood of school closures and limited to no access to learning

But did you know there is a learning disruption every year during summer? In what is termed the “summer slide”, kids return to classrooms in September following two months of no formal learning.  

We have always had a range of readiness among students in the school year. This year, there is a greater number of students on the lower end of the readiness scale and it is more palpable, because of the longer interruption. 

To address this, there needs to be an increased focus on the unique strengths and learning needs of each individual child. 

In order to accelerate learning this school year, formative assessments (either formal or informal) need to be an early and regular practice in the classroom. For schools that had not established regular, formative assessments prior to the pandemic, it’s unlikely that they have the means now to understand what stage their returning students are at in their development. 

Based on a poll of educators and entrepreneurs, only 1 in 5 of America’s K-12 students have experienced formative assessments. There is more ground to cover. The following paragraph delves into the reasons why formative assessments are especially important in early childhood education.


The Special Significance of Early Childhood Assessments

Assessments in preschool through grade 3 are of special importance in early childhood education. There is a litany of statistics that all say one thing—from birth to 8 years of age, it is a critical milestone to  build a solid foundation and maximize learning.

Assessing the developmental milestones that are achieved therefore is of the highest importance. It’s why formative assessments are suited to the cause, which collect timely and relevant data as a child progresses in their learning skills and abilities. 

Also at this stage of a child’s life, it’s a team effort to educate and care for the young learner.

It’s via the assessment, that teachers, administrators and parents are able to support the learning that is needed.  

Formative assessments inform teacher planning, they enable educator and family partnerships and they provide necessary information for program quality evaluation.

Teachers have the all important role of instructing children in the formative years. Assessments allow them to uncover student strengths and learning opportunities. 

They are able to differentiate and even individualize instruction where necessary, so early learners are matched with the right activities for optimal development. 

The student’s parents have the important responsibility of partnering with teachers to see how they can best support their child’s learning at home. Assessments reveal certain areas that need to be worked on and the progress made on each area of development. 

Communication here should be two-way, where teachers and parents share knowledge with each other to help the young student grow and mature as a learner. 

Program administrators and policy makers have the important mandate to monitor student’s development in the early years and address emerging issues. Decisions need to be made where to focus efforts, so there is continual improvement year-in and year-out. 

Whether it’s new teaching materials or the need for further professional development, formative assessments are good indicators of how a program is doing.


Considerations on How to Best Assess Early Learners During Their Formative Years

Many things have to be considered when devising an assessment method for early learners. For many young children, it’s the first time they are out of a home setting for an elongated period of time. 

Educators and other early childhood education professionals have to be especially considerate of all information gathered from early learning assessments.

Here are some considerations when choosing the right assessment method. Often, a combination of methods is used to build a learning profile for the young student. So while formative assessments are preferred, they may have different types of qualities as covered in the considerations below.

Consideration: Control

Children-Led vs Adult-Led 

Children can assess themselves, in what is known as “self-assessment.” Having “conversations” with educators is another assessment method that is closer to a child-led assessment. 

“Observation” is both child- and adult-lead, as children demonstrate their skills while educators observe how it’s done. 

“Setting tasks” is an assessment method that is more adult-led. Finally, testing is the best example of an adult-led assessment, where educators control the whole environment.

Consideration: Perspectives

One Point of View vs Many Points of View

At-home environments can be very different from at-school environments. Some children are exposed to different languages or cultures at home and have the challenge of reconciling those differences in a school setting. 

When assessing children, it’s important to not just gather the teacher’s perspective, but also the perspective of the child’s parents, and even the perspective of the wider community who also have chances to interact with the child. It’s one of the many characteristics of holistic learning. 

Opportunities to collaborate and share information must be provided to all these parties because they spend time with the child in different learning environments. Thus, they have inputs which make assessments more fair and accurate. The point of view of the early learner must also be taken into account, which is reflective of a more child-led assessment as mentioned prior.

Consideration: Frequency

Regular vs Once

Formative assessments deal with the day-to-day learning process as it unfolds. These assessments are integrated into the daily teaching practices and are ongoing. They can be both formal and informal. 

Summative assessments are used for reporting purposes. They provide a snapshot of all the learning that happened for a specific period of time. These assessments occur only at certain times of the year and are fixed.

While a formative assessment is “for learning”, a summative assessment is “of learning”. There is a third category of learning that is both formative and summative. It is the “assessment as learning” 

Children are being assessed for what they have learned, but are also learning from the assessment experience. This aligns more closely to formative assessments than summative assessments. 

When the student’s perspective is prioritized, they are allowed “do overs”, and the right interventions are applied following every single assessment. This is a very advanced practice of formative assessment based on real-time data and an attitude of helping rather than penalizing.

Consideration: Timeline

Diagnostic vs Standardized

This is a very interesting spectrum, where the two ends are more similar to each other than what lies in between. 

Diagnostic assessments are used to screen preschoolers or kindergartners when they first enter the school system. Such screening programs are usually developed by companies and administered by educators. It’s a very similar case with standardized testing which first takes place in grade 3 or 4 in Canada and the US. 

But what happens in between is key. That’s where a lot of the early learning growth and development occurs. If school systems were focused primarily on assessment screens and summative testing,  there is valuable data that is not being collected in a timely manner and subsequently not being used to support learning in the prime formative years. Important data such as student performance, behavior, attitudes, characteristics, motivations, interests, literacy skills, math skills, cultural backgrounds etc. 

Measuring such breadth of data is so instrumental to student success, that large government programs like Early Head Start and Head Start lists tables of performance indicators of school readiness. But once in school, should not the same rigor be applied in continually measuring such things? It leads us to think…..


When Is the Right Time to Assess?

Assessments, in the form of screenings, can first happen before children are placed in preschool. These assessments often screen for health and developmental milestones, but also other factors that determine preschool readiness. It includes social-emotional maturity and the ability to handle basic self-care tasks.

Kindergarten assessments or screenings are more common. Usually, they not only assess self-care skills, but also language skills, cognitive skills, and fine and gross motor skills. More than 25 states in the US require some sort of kindergarten entrance assessments.

Regular assessments from kindergarten to grade 3  tend to fade out or are very targeted or restricted to report cards only. 

Yes, educators have always used their own formative assessments in some shape or form such as administering quizzes or observing group work or individual tasks. But there is a lack of comprehensive formative assessment systems that apply differentiated instruction by regularly collecting data on daily and weekly learning.


What Are the Principles of Assessment?

In stating the top 20 principles of early childhood education, the American Psychological Association dedicates principles 18 to 20 to assessment. 

To summarize the principles: formative and summative assessments need to complement each other. The assessment processes must be valid and reliable with well-defined standards for quality and fairness. Assessment data must be interpreted appropriately. 

Holistic learning is a pedagogical approach that takes into account all of the aforementioned principles. It administers ongoing formative assessments that consider multiple points of view, including that of the student. As such, it is very careful in how the results of the assessment are interpreted to reduce bias. 

Besides formative assessments, there are actual diagnostic assessments as well which are more summative in nature and which identify the strengths, interests and challenges of each student. It establishes the base from which subsequent formative assessments can be applied to measure progress. 

It is an evidence-based system of learning that focuses not only on cognitive development, but also emotional, physical and spiritual development. Given its comprehensive outlook, it is open to understanding all the ways in which a child may develop, and thus qualifies for appropriate interpretation.


Choosing An Assessment System

A school can either choose a program-developed assessment tool that meets its specific needs, or a published assessment tool off the shelf that is more general and suited to assessments only. While both are  validated as tools for measuring early childhood development, there are tradeoffs. 

With the former, you can pick a platform that aligns well with your program goals, such as supporting students beyond the classroom setting, or enabling teachers to apply differentiated instruction. With the latter, you can more accurately measure the constructs that interest you and compare them to local, regional and national standards, but it may not have the practical functionality of supporting all critical stakeholders like the former. 

What’s important is that formative assessments become a standard feature of the education system and are reflected in the curriculum planning for school districts.

Sprig Learning is committed towards facilitating learning for all students, and especially those who need it most due to the recent pandemic learning loss . We are equally as committed to building a system where there is comprehensive and timely insight on student progress, so the linkage between home and school is not suddenly severed in case of future disruptions. 

It’s more than just helping students catch up. It’s about introducing a more student-centric assessment system, where everyone supporting the child has the information and tools they need to support their early learning. 

To learn more about holistic assessments and how they are implemented in schools, please do get in touch with us.

Formal Formative Assessment or Informal Formative Assessment. What’s Right for Early Learning?

Every month in the life of a child is crucial for early childhood development. The most significant brain development happens between birth and age 5. It’s said that 90% of brain growth takes place before kindergarten. 

The first critical period of brain development does not end until the child reaches 7 years of age. This early period is extremely conducive to learning and has long lasting effects for the rest of the child’s life. 

It’s a formative period, where most of the synapses between brain cells are formed. As it pertains to education, it’s a time for formative assessments.

Formative assessments monitor early learning to provide ongoing feedback, which educators use to adapt instruction and ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed. It identifies progress and learning gaps as they happen and informs how to best move forward to optimize learning for the young student. 

Principal Jennifer McKay, former Senior Director of Early Childhood Education at Oklahoma State Department of Education says that “effective teachers make informed instructional decisions from formative assessment data.” 

Commenting on the pandemic, she states that formative assessments help close learning gaps and “provide a window to understanding student’s social and emotional well being” after a prolonged period of absence from school.

Examples of Formative Assessments Include: Homework assignments, in-class activities and group work.

Formative assessment (assessment for learning) is different from a summative assessment (assessment of learning), which happens only after a certain instructional period, and only a certain number of times a year.

Examples of Summative Assessments Include: End of unit reports, final grades and end of unit projects.

Clearly, both formative and summative assessments are needed to support all young students. Performing well in formative assessments is often a strong indicator of doing well in any summative assessment. In a meta-analysis of 250 formative assessment studies, formative assessment was found to have a lasting, positive effect on the quality of teaching and the achievement of students. The effects were much more pronounced for low-performing students, which is a testament to its effect in identifying and addressing learning gaps.

Formal Formative Assessment and Informal Formative Assessment

Often, formative assessments are contrasted with formal assessments, implying that all formative assessments are informal. While it’s true that summative assessments and standardized tests are more formal than common formative assessments, there is still variation in the latter in the degree of formality. 

Educators can assess students by taking notes. But there are also valid and reliable scales used by researchers to formatively assess young learners. For example, the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) looks at the development continuum from early infancy to kindergarten. It contains rating scales that are based on the acquisition of age-appropriate developmental milestones.

Similarly, National Institute of Early Education Research researchers have developed the Early Learning Scale and Kindergarten Early Learning Scale. These scales contain items that are easily measurable and critical to present and future learning. 

At Sprig Learning, we too have developed our own scale for early learning that is developed by educators, based on best practices and tested for efficacy, accuracy and bias. Adopting such a formative assessment approach ensures that educators are able to make timely data-informed decisions at every step of the child’s learning journey.

Formative Assessment Cycle

Formative assessments are a planned classroom practice of acquiring evidence of student learning.  They are often repetitive and occur throughout the school year. They are not a one-time event. Formative assessments take on the following cycle:

Examine Student Work > Inform Teacher Knowledge > Inform Instruction > Administer Tasks

There are data points that need to be collected in all four stages in order to facilitate this cycle. 

  • Student work assigned should be examined for completion and accuracy.
  • There should be a feedback loop that connects this information back to the teachers.
  • They should record the actions taken to identify learning strengths and address any learning gaps.
  • New classroom activities and tasks should then be assigned to measure progress and repeat the cycle. 

Formal formative assessments use some standard, rubric or well-defined grading system to assign a mark. But merely collecting data for this purpose makes formative assessments very rigid. It leaves no room for informal techniques of assessment such as observations, notes, and qualitative work samples that a number cannot evaluate. 

Rori Hodges, an experienced pre-kindergarten teacher, says “my formative assessment strategies are very informal. That way I can get an honest, natural response from the child. Very young children learn most effectively through interaction and exploration, not by lecture and memorization.”

So it’s good to have a lot of data to enable formative assessments, but the execution of such assessments and the actual interactive teaching that happens in the classroom are extremely important in the development of the early learner. We can label such face-to-face or observatory assessments as informal assessments.

Next, we look at some of the ways to do informal formative assessments. It’s best if the implementation and results of such activities are securely stored in a repository for future evaluation, thereby uniting formal and informal formative assessments.

Examples of Informal Formative Assessments

Monitoring: The teacher monitors the class to see if everyone is engaged. Observing students as they practice a skill helps teachers understand who needs help with what. 

Games: Tag or relay races. Alphabet naming. Interactive response sessions (including physical responses such as clapping and stomping). Play based learning is a great opportunity to observe progress, where young students let their guard down and reflect what they have learned. 

Parent Communication: Sending teacher-recommended activities to parents. When it comes to assessing learning progression, it’s great if parents help out by reinforcing the teachings at home. 

Journals: This is a more advanced form of formative assessments suitable for 1st graders. Journaling allows them to demonstrate their knowledge in words, numbers or pictures. 

Survey: Sometimes, it’s best to ask students directly if they have understood a particular lesson. They can indicate this by using fun methods like the Hand Thermometer (hands raised high if they understood and hands held low if they didn’t quite get it) and displaying coloured cards (each colour signifies a particular response). 

Partner Quizzes: Assessments can be turned into a group activity as well where young students quiz each other on what they have learned, and this activity is observed by a teacher.

4 Types of Formative Assessment Practices

Regardless of whether formal or informal formative assessments are used, it’s important that they follow best practices. NWEA, formerly known as Northwest Evaluation Association, lists four formative assessment practices that can be used to continuously gather evidence of learning to adapt teaching accordingly. 

For each best practice we have created a scale that shows the influence of formal and informal formative assessments.

Clarify what the students are to learn. Explain what they should know or be able to do.

                                                      Largely Formal

It’s imperative students understand what it is that they are learning and what their expectations are in class. As such there is more scope for one-on-one or group teaching.


Get evidence of where students are in their learning.

                                                      Largely Formal

Collecting evidence requires hard data. Such assessments can be done on a tablet or by building a learner’s profile by looking at all completed activities thus far. Different standards of progress can be created using a rubric.


Provide feedback to students on what to work on.

                                             Equally Informal and Formal

High degree of interaction with students is required to provide feedback, but the feedback also relates back to a formal assessment of their latest activities.


Activate early learners by getting them to own their learning.

                                                     Equally Informal and Formal

All improvements should be reflected in a report. Teachers and parents may share such reports with young students to incentivize further learning growth. Using a rubric sets clear expectations on what is to be achieved.

Why Formative Assessment is a Good Fit for Early Learning

Early education innovator and researcher Dr. Shannon Riley Ayers writes that formative assessment is “a critical piece of a balanced, comprehensive system of assessment for young children.”

It is systematic, but individualized. 

It is all encompassing in considering every aspect of a child’s learning and development.

It is not the collection of data, but the use of data.

It is a strengths-based approach. 

It is suited for differentiated instruction

In this article, we highlighted the importance of formative assessments, and how it precedes most other forms of assessments such as summative assessments and standardized assessments. 

So, what’s best for early learning? Our research shows that the right way to approach formative assessments is to take a balanced approach, which utilizes both formal and informal methods of assessment. At the end of the day, assessments should be useful to the educator and fun for early learners.


Why Traditional Early Years Assessment is Failing

Among personalized learning and caregiver engagement, student assessment is one of the most important aspects of early learning. Educators who consistently use formative assessment strategies are shown to double the speed of learning for students in their classroom. While the link between assessment and early years learning is clear, a gap remains with the data that is being collected.

Traditional assessments only capture two perspectives: the teacher and the student. This leaves learning that happens outside of the classroom unidentified. There are more stakeholders in student learning outside of school, so how do we bridge the gap from inside the classroom to the outside world?

The answer is holistic education. Holistic education integrates multiple learning components in its thinking, focusing on the whole learner instead of the sum of its parts. It pays significant attention to experiential learning and aims to help students reach their maximum potential. Assessment needs to encourage communities and caregivers to take part in a child’s learning so students can demonstrate their full potential. This not only helps students but supports educators by increasing caregiver and community engagement.

What does holistic education mean for future learning?

A child’s early life experiences are proven to have a lasting impact on their development and future learning success. For this reason, early years assessment data needs to be collected accurately and holistically.

More than 85% of a child’s brain growth development
occurs before the age of 5.

With holistic assessment, every stakeholder in a child’s learning benefits. Caregivers are empowered to help their child learn effectively and teachers receive support from caregivers and the community while gaining access to better data to inform instruction.

With better data, true personalized learning can finally be achieved – an ambitious objective looking to be met by educations systems globally. With personalized learning still a frontier, a holistic approach in assessment can accelerate its development. In Canada, some provinces still use standardized assessments that date back twenty years, but the good news is they recognize the need for change.

In order for personalized learning to be effective, accurate and comprehensive information is required to define the needs of the learner. A holistic approach to assessment enables this in two ways.

First, by broadening its scope to identify learning in the home, community, land (and school), holistic assessment provides new information for teachers. New information about each learner that may have never been asked or identified. Second, a holistic assessment provides more accurate information through its more natural and formative approaches. Through the provision of culturally enabling tools and implementation, holistic assessments are able to break down direct and indirect biases during the assessment, which creates a more comfortable and supportive environment for students to demonstrate their skills and abilities.

Applying a holistic approach to assessment also fosters a mindset of collaboration. Students are taught to stop, collaborate and listen to each other’s thoughts for constructive discussion. They’re taught this behaviour because it will be expected of them in the workplace. Teaching in collaboration with caregivers and the community sets a precedent for students and produces better education at the same time.

What research supports holistic education?

The holistic approach is rooted in Canadian First Nations teachings and the lifelong learning model – both products of research from the Canadian Council on Learning. Indigenous people in Canada have long understood the role that learning plays in building healthy, thriving communities and despite significant cultural and historical differences, Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis people share a vision of learning as a holistic, lifelong process.

“We have constantly measured the wrong things against a different paradigm — leading inevitably to an assessment of failure.”

– Canadian Council on Learning

Though developed for Indigenous peoples in Canada, the holistic approach can be applied to students of all cultural backgrounds. In fact, two of the top performing education systems in the world thrive using aspects of the holistic approach and lifelong learning model. Education systems everywhere are teaching a lifelong learning mindset so students can keep up in a fast-paced, digital world. It’s perhaps time these systems adopt the same mentality for early years assessment.

A key piece in making sure the holistic approach is implemented efficiently is technology. In today’s day and age, the approach doesn’t work without it. Technology makes it easy for teachers, caregivers and community members to be in sync with where and how the student is learning. Technology can aggregate and curate assessment results making it easily accessible to all stakeholders. In addition, from a student’s perspective interacting with technology in early assessment is crucial to developing the digital literacy required in today’s workforce.

Why should teachers advocate a holistic approach to early years assessment?

With more information at hand, a holistic approach helps identify every student’s learning strengths and encourages teachers to help students use their strengths to address their challenges in every educational setting. This allows educators to better inform instruction for each individual child.

A holistic approach to assessment yields better results and distributes the responsibility of educators by engaging caregivers. Not only that, but the positive impact of caregiver involvement has long shown to produce higher student achievement. By connecting caregivers and the community to learning in the classroom, caregivers can complement their child’s learning path with community and home-based activities.

Less work for teachers, more involvement of caregivers and improved learning results. 

For more information about a holistic approach to assessment or holistic education, send us an email at letstalk@spriglearning.com.

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