Problems with early assessment

The curricular reform movement has led to more-rigorous curricula for younger children. The emphasis on math and literacy skills and the escalation of accountability in kindergarten have been criticized for not taking into account the developmental patterns of children. The call for accountability requires more testing. Catherine M. Bordignon and Tony C.M. Lam, University of Toronto, report that educators face critical issues in early assessment, specifically the inappropriate norms and low predictive validity of many instruments now being used for preschool and kindergarten testing.

Reliable results depend on valid and appropriate assessment instruments that are carefully chosen with the developmental level of the child in mind. Because funding for early learning programs is contingent upon children meeting designated standards, educators need to be able to depend on the tests they choose. Bordignon and Lam assert that the valid and appropriate use of tests can provide important information about children’s physical and cognitive development to parents and educators. But care must be taken in choosing, administering and evaluating the results of these tests. A meta-analysis of more than 60 studies comparing readiness measures and subsequent performance of students indicates that readiness screening explains, at most, moderate variation on achievement tests.

School Readiness

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) list three factors that are critical to the discussion of school readiness:

  • The diversity and inequality in children’s early experiences
  • The broad variation in their learning and developmental patterns
  • The extent to which the school-based kindergarten environment supports individual differences.

The questionable suitability of many readiness and screening tests complicates the task of evaluating readiness. The United States National Education Goals Panel hypothesizes that school readiness includes physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, learning style, language use, and cognition and general knowledge. The panel recognizes that all these factors affect a child’s progress in school. Many readiness tests have been criticized for their narrow focus on isolated skills. The limited attention span and restricted language skills of young children inhibit in-depth testing. The diverse aspects of development and readiness for learning make it impossible to develop a comprehensive picture of the child from a single session using a single test. Predictive validity can be improved by evaluating the child on more than one occasion and gathering information from both his teacher and his parents.

Evaluating the Tests

Studies of kindergarten screening have revealed rather widespread use of psychometrically questionable tests. Any readiness test must be both valid and reliable. It must measure what it says it measures, and a child who is tested more than once, should get close to the same score. In addition, the standardization sample – the children with whom the measure was originally designed and tested – must be similar to the child being evaluated. Some currently used tests were normed with mainly white, middle-class children (Gesell School Readiness Test), and some provide very limited normative information (Brigance K & 1 Screen). In selecting an assessment instrument, the standardization sample should mirror the characteristics of the children being assessed. Otherwise, the use of the test could lead to false conclusions. If multiple sources of information are used, corroborating evidence can increase confidence in the results. In addition, it is imperative that any effective screening test be able to distinguish between children who are prone to develop difficulties in school and those who are not. Many tests do not provide information on their predictive validity because that requires tracking children over time, and many test developers do not carry out long-term studies.

In conclusion, combining information from various sources with the results derived from multiple evaluation methods can minimize the effects of deficient tests. The inclusion of affective and behavioral components with knowledge and skills creates a broader, more accurate developmental picture of a child. In particular, decisions about transitional-year classes, retention or delayed entry should not be made on the basis of screening and readiness tests alone. In-depth evaluations, however, take more time and cost more. Where resources necessitate the use of flawed instruments, educators are cautioned to incorporate information from several sources and to take into account the deficiencies of the test when analyzing results and drawing conclusions. Educators must balance conflicting demands to integrate developmentally and scholastically appropriate curriculum assessment. In addition, educators who conduct and interpret the readiness data must be able to recommend remediation methods for children who lack readiness skills.


“The Early Assessment Conundrum: Lessons From the Past, Implications for the Future”, Psychology in the Schools, Volume 41, Number 7, September 2004, pp. 737-749..

Published in ERN November/December 2004 Volume 17 Number 8

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