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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.