Assessment in the Early Childhood Classroom

Curriculum standards define what children should know and be able to do in a particular content area. Standards provide guidance to teachers and informs their instruction. Teachers can use these curriculum standards to assess what concepts need strengthening or reteaching, or to identify when a new strategy is needed. Standards are organized by grade level to better define what children should know and be able to do at each grade level, and to facilitate developmentally appropriate teaching. When faced with high-stakes testing, teachers often feel pressured to teach material to students before they are ready to learn it, or in ways that are not age appropriate. Teacher training, discussions with colleagues, and networking can enable teachers to carefully reflect about each step along the way to mastery. Standards should provide enough information to help with assessment of student mastery.

Functions of Assessment

  1. Identify current knowledge and skills of students
  2. Address and plan for the strengths and needs of students
  3. Evaluate student growth over time
  4. Promote student motivation and objectivity
  5. Evaluate program effectiveness
  6. Enlighten parents of student progress
  7. Promote parent advocates

Components of Assessment

Early Childhood Assessment is composed of three essential, interrelated components:

  1. Documentation (data collection)
  2. Evaluation (comparison to a standard)
  3. Communication with family (sharing both progress and performance)


Early childhood educators have historically valued and promoted child observation and program assessment as being important for highquality programs for children. Assessment is the process of gathering information about students in order to make decisions about their education. To get a well-rounded picture of the student’s understanding and progress, the strategies used for assessment must be comprehensive. Unique talents, interests, knowledge, skills, and progress are documented by observing, collecting, and reviewing children’s work over time. Teachers recognize that uneven development is normal and expected, allowing them to assess children fairly. Assessment must involve observing children regularly and collecting samples of their work. The physical products created can become part of a student portfolio, providing many examples of children’s thinking over time.

In documentation, emphasis is placed on discovering what a child already knows and is able to do. Acknowledging student understanding promotes the child’s sense of competence and provides teachers with clues about what and how to teach. It gives a much more accurate picture than assessing them in a contrived setting. For example, asking a child to write an answer to a math problem may not show whether or not the child has problem solving skills or can add digits. The child may not understand the meaning of the problem, may have stayed up too late, or may be coming down with the flu. In contrast, daily observation as the child solves many kinds of problems enables the teacher to discover what he understands about addition and problem solving as well as other mathematical concepts.


The next step in assessment is comparing the gathered information of each student to the standard. This step enables teachers to guide instruction, evaluate teaching strategies, track student progress, and identify students with special needs that require additional interventions or services. Although standards are designed to provide consistent expectations for all children, instruction must be molded to fit each child’s individual strengths and needs. The insights gained from early assessment can serve as the basis for instruction. As teachers observe students at work, they can modify the learning experiences offered to meet the individual needs of their students.

Family Communication

Families want to know how their child is doing in school, and family members appreciate specific examples of student progress. Showing examples from their child over time enables parents to personally assess the growth and progress of their child. It is essential to tell the whole story when reporting information about performance progress. For example, a first grade teacher may report that a first grade student made excellent progress in learning the letter sounds. Although this may be true, it can give a misleading impression to parents. At the beginning of second grade the new teacher informs the parents that the child is reading far below grade level. Talking with families about standards, sharing student work samples, using rubrics in conferences, and differentiating between performance and progress are some ways to ensure that families are given an accurate picture of student learning.

Assessment Strategies

Performance Assessment— Assess children as they participate in daily activities, write stories, solve problems, draw illustrations. Teachers observe and take brief notes on student discussions and interactions. Teachers review student work, determine strengths and weaknesses, and keep track of progress over time. Assessments are ageappropriate, ongoing, aligned with curriculum standards, and comprehensive.

Comprehensive Assessment—The range and scope of information and the type of data collected are based on the child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. A child’s success as a writer in first grade is tied to his fine motor development. A second grade student’s success in working in a cooperative learning group is dependent on both social and cognitive skills. Teachers need information about the student’s strengths and weaknesses in all areas to enhance their decision making and guide their instruction strategies.

Standardized Tests— Criterion Reference Tests compare students to a fixed standard or set criteria for measurement. Teachers plan how to prepare children to handle standardized tests successfully. Teachers recognize that the Criterion Reference Tests are based upon the core curriculum, and ensure that what they teach meshes with (but is not limited to) the curriculum goals evaluated by the tests. Teachers provide opportunities for children to practice and gain familiarity with the test format. Teachers develop a curriculum timetable for the year, making sure essential concepts are sequenced developmentally and allocated appropriate time slots. So many standardized tests are now required in school settings that teachers are seeking balance in the assessment process.

Self-Assessment— Self-Assessment enables children to reflect on their progress. Teachers can help students assess their understanding by asking questions such as “What can I do very well? What are my personal strengths and interests? What skills can I improve? What is one thing on which I really want to work?” Teachers help model self-directed learning as they help each student learn the language and process of setting, recording, and evaluating goals. (See the self-assessment rubrics in the back of this section.)

Rubrics— Rubrics enable teachers and students to share a clear understanding of performance expectations that represent quality work. Motivation and objectivity are enhanced as students understand the criteria for the evaluation of their work. Children can reflect on and evaluate their own work with a clear understanding of standards. It is helpful to provide models to children showing examples of each level of the rubric. Children benefit from occasionally participating in the creation of a rubric for a class. A wonderful tool for developing age-appropriate rubrics is available at

Examples of Authentic Assessment Strategies

  • Observation of individual children or groups of children
  • Interviews with children or parents
  • Concept mapping of individual groups or children
  • Journals kept by students or teachers
  • Performance Assessment tasks
  • Open-ended questions or problems
  • Drawings
  • Photos
  • Artwork
  • Portfolios
  • Narrative Descriptions
  • Audio tapes
  • Video tapes
  • Work samples from any content area showing growth and progress over time
  • Work samples with rubric for analysis
  • Computer-based work, drawings, stories (both written and depicted), etc.

Key Indicators and Major Teaching Emphasis for Writing

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© 2003, Elementary CORE Academy, Utah State Board of Education, Utah State University.