October 21, 2013

A Window into Early Assessment

A new survey will help show states what early childcare assessment looks like

It’s 8 a.m. at Betty Capello’s family daycare in Newton, Massachusetts, and already her home is bustling with activity. Three babies squawk at each other. Two preschool-aged girls say hello and begin to play. Capello welcomes everyone and maintains order—all while cooking breakfast.

Capello has run her daycare in similar fashion for 32 years. But as part of the relicensing process this year, she will have to add one more task: a progress report for each child, as required by a new policy from the Commonwealth’s Department of Early Education and Care.

“The progress reports don’t have to go into any great depth,” she says. “The point is to document any concerns I have about children.”

Still, she admits that she doesn’t know what types of assessment measures she will use or even what standards she is supposed to assess children against. Capello says that assessment has typically been low on her list of priorities.

Capello’s situation is emblematic of one facing early childhood educators of all kinds across the country. As pressure mounts for all children to be ready for kindergarten, more attention is being paid to what children are learning—even in their earliest years. But assessment practices in daycare and preschool programs are uneven, and there’s little data about whether providers are using standards and assessment at all.

Staff from the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI)—funded by the Institute of Education Sciences and housed at EDC—are interested in this issue. And with considerable input from state-level education staff from New York, New England, and the Virgin Islands, they are helping to develop a survey to gather data about the use of standards and assessments in early childcare settings across the region.

A collaborative approach

The idea for a survey arose during a series of meetings of REL-NEI’s Early Childhood Education Research Alliance, a group of researchers and education leaders from throughout REL-NEI’s member states.

“We found that most state-level administrators were concerned with assessment standards and practice, but their states did not have basic information on how providers were using early learning standards and assessments,” says EDC’s Clare Irwin. “So we figured it would be useful for them to have a tool to collect data on this.”

The survey will collect information on providers in three areas: demographics, knowledge of early learning standards, and assessment use.

In the states and territories served by REL-NEI, there is a big need for this data.

“The survey would give us a good understanding of where administrators and providers are in their understanding of standards and assessments,” says Judi Stevenson-Garcia, an assessment specialist with the Rhode Island Department of Education. “The results would also help inform the professional development and technical assistance opportunities we currently provide, and those we are in the process of developing.”

Getting a good picture

Gathering assessment data from the multitude of early childcare settings—including Head Start centers, home daycares, and formal preschool programs—can be difficult. The reason? Multiple agencies often oversee different sectors of child services. In Rhode Island, for example, the state’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families tracks licensing data for family childcare settings, while individual Head Start agencies report data directly to the federal government.

With each agency having different expectations for assessment and unique policies for collecting information, gathering data across populations and providers is almost impossible. And this fragmentation of information makes it difficult for state-level administrators to get a good picture of what is going on in early childhood settings across their state.

Irwin and REL-NEI colleagues have worked with members of the Research Alliance to identify strengths, gaps, and opportunities in the states’ existing data collection systems. Once the survey tool is completed, individual states will be able to determine what sections of the survey they want to use—or whether they want to use it at all.

For her part, Stevenson-Garcia thinks that the new survey has the potential to help educators and policymakers in Rhode Island better understand what the landscape of early childhood assessment looks like.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” she says. “We’re interested to find out more about how administrators and teachers understand the standards. And we’d love the opportunity to document the progress in their understanding and use of appropriate assessment practices.”