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Preschool Assessments: A Look Across the States

As participation in publicly-funded preschool programs steadily grows and pressure ramps up on states to prove that those programs are preparing low-income children for kindergarten, measuring learning outcomes of those preschoolers has become a major policy focus.

To capture how states are assessing their youngest learners, the Educational Testing Service today is releasing a review of preschool assessments currently in use. The report also delves into the challenges of assessing young learners and spells out sound practices states can consider using.

The timing of this short policy paper written by Richard Coley, the executive director of research and development at ETS, and Debra Ackerman, the lead research project manager at ETS, could be helpful to states where policymakers will be wrestling with budget decisions, as well as legislation around their early childhood programs. Early learning assessments also figure heavily into the plans of nine states that are sharing $500 million in federal grants through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge.

Of course, there is hardly universal agreement on how best to evaluate young children's school readiness even as states begin trying new approaches.

The authors looked at 50 pre-K programs in 40 states for their report and found that many of them use an observational approach to gauge what children are learning by observing them on a day-to-day basis while they are engaged in their usual preschool activities.

A few states—Alabama, Alaska, Nevada, and Virginia—use direct assessments to show whether a child has met a specific skill such as recognizing a letter in the alphabet. The authors caution that this approach, while reliable and valid, may not give a full picture of what a child's skills are or the quality of the program they are enrolled in. A number of states use a combination of observation and direct assessment.

Whatever the method for assessing young children, Coley and Ackerman spell out four key criteria for policymakers to weigh when choosing an assessment approach:

1. The measure must be used for the purpose for which it was designed.

2. The measure has to be valid and reliable. That's assessment lingo which means that the scores on a test are appropriate for a particular purpose (valid) and that the scores tend to be consistent on two or more occasions of testing (reliable).

3. The kind of training and support that will be required for the adults who administer the assessments and then interpret their results is key.

4. Time, cost, and personnel resources required to do the assessments, score them, report them and interpret them.

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