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Colorado Early Educators Talk About Assessment

While my story today on early assessment gives a wide-angle lens on the controversy surrounding assessment and very young children, space limits prevented the piece from zooming in on the perspective of early educators in the classroom. So I'd like to offer that here.

Last week, Denver preschool teacher Paul Mezzacapo and infant/toddler classroom coach Shelley Anderson spoke with me about how they use assessment and connect it to the state early-learning data system, Results Matter.

Mezzacapo and Anderson teach at Clayton Early Learning, home of the Clayton Educare Center, a Denver early learning site that provides Head Start and Early Head Start services to 300 low-income families. Clayton Early Learning also serves as a research and demonstration site for early childhood education.

A hallmark of good early childhood education is the use of teachers' anecdotal notes of children's learning and social behaviors to check their progress and inform classroom planning. At Clayton Early Learning, Mezzacapo and Anderson say that those observations are tied to state standards and quantified to make data easier to submit electronically, but the essential work remains the same.

Most Colorado early learning programs use an assessment called Teaching Strategies Gold, developed by Creative Curriculum, a Maryland-based company that publishes a popular early-childhood curriculum.

"Teaching Strategies Gold built the system to [Colorado] state standards, so there's a really good connect there," said Mezzacapo.

He says Results Matter is a help, not a hindrance, to his teaching.

"Any teacher's life is incredibly busy," he said. "But it makes the job easier in the long run if we are keeping track of where the children are. Without that information, we can't individualize instruction. You're kind of shooting in the dark."

After gathering his observations, Mezzacapo analyzes them to see where children are along developmental progressions and plan instructional activities to help them move further. "This child is at this point, and this is the scaffolding we need to do.Then we can choose activities to get the children to those objectives."

Three times a year, teachers determine "an official solid level we think the children are at within the objectives," as Mezzacapo put it. "There's numbers for each level. We choose what number the child is at [and] all of those numbers for all the objectives get collected." Mezzacapo stressed that the number is not a hard-and-fast peg, but indicates the child is within a particular developmental range.

I asked Mezzacapo whether conducting these assessments took undue time away from teaching, a concern raised in some quarters about early assessment.

"Not if it's done the way it's meant to be done. It's pretty sophisticated the way we use it," he said.

When asked how he got good at it, his answer was simple: "Practice. I think there really needs to be teamwork, a lot of conversation with co-teachers and practice with data to make sure it comes alive. If the time isn't made to make it come alive, it doesn't get utilized in the best way."

Mezzacapo now helps other teachers analyze data and use it in their instructional planning.

Having an anecdotal record of a child over time helps keep the picture clear when memory becomes hazy, too, he says. "When I might pull up the anecdotes for a certain child in the last three months for an early intervention meeting, I've got a mosaic about the child that might be a little different and a little more objective than what was in my mind. When we're with the children every day, there are things we miss about their progress."

Clayton Early Learning is implementing a system called Learning through Relating to help teacher/caregivers observe the progress of the infants and toddlers in their care and strategize ways of relating that to promote their growth to new levels. The system is unique in that it was developed expressly for infants and toddlers, rather than being modified from a preschool program for 3 and 4 year olds.

"It's not requiring you to plan activities, but to be intentional and consistent with your work as a teacher," Anderson said.

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