Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Rose Davies | Cautions on early childhood assessment

Published:Sunday | May 22, 2016 | 5:00 AM

I read with some concern an article titled 'Basic-, infant-school students' assessment begins Tuesday', posted in the online edition of The Gleaner of Monday, May 9, 2016. In its opening paragraph, the report states: "The literacy and numeracy skills of thousands of basic-school students are to be assessed tomorrow and Wednesday to determine their readiness to move on to the primary school level ... ."

The test will be administered by the Early Childhood Commission, targeting four-year-old students in more than 90 per cent of the island's early childhood institutions (ECIs). Without being specific, this involves more than 2,000 ECIs, yielding thousands of four-year-old children. This report immediately raises red flags.

Not being privy to further information, I assume that the tests will be administered under group conditions similar to the GOILP (Grade One Individual Learning Profile) carried out by the Ministry of Education each year. There is a great deal of empirical knowledge about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate approaches in early childhood assessment practice.

It is known and internationally acknowledged that one-off group assessments such as these being executed are developmentally inappropriate for children as young as four years old. The results of single assessments are not very reliable for this age group as they are influenced by so many variables, e.g., fatigue, distractibility,and hunger, among other factors.

My first concern is the absence of public information leading to the rollout of this assessment. If it is that I missed it, I unreservedly apologise. But I do maintain that a national assessment such as this should be subject to prior discussion and debate by the public at large. How widely was this information shared prior to this two-day implementation process? Is this a pilot run or a general rollout? Appropriate practice in developing what seems to be a national assessment system requires that the system be tested and redesigned repeatedly until it achieves a high level of reliability in scoring individual children's performance. This is even more critical for very young children who have difficulty functioning in the prescribed conditions of group testing. Young children exhibit different kinds of behaviours in different contexts, so how reliable can the results of such testing be?

A child who is perfectly capable of 'passing' the test of age-appropriate literacy and numeracy skills may just not be tuned in to doing the tests to the best of his/her ability on that specific day. So then when these unreliable results are interpreted, would this child be deemed not ready for primary school?

Appropriate practice in early childhood assessment requires a more holistic, sustained approach. Teachers observe and note, over time, the child's progress in various developmental domains as the child goes about daily activities involving play, interacting with peers and adults, engaging in intellectual academic activities, learning self-regulation skills, and the like. Over a period, the teacher is able to analyse and interpret all the data collected from these observations, evaluate, and make an informed judgement about the child's readiness for school, areas of strength, and areas of weakness.

The most important skills for children to learn in these early years are those of social emotional competence and self-regulation. Academic skills fall in place easily once the social-emotional competences are developed.

The ultimate value of this current group testing of four-year-olds needs to be reassessed as there are too many red flags. In addition to the concerns I have already raised, here are a few more red-flag areas that should concern us:

The majority of four-year-olds are not expected to be functionally literate, that is, to read, understand, and carry out instructions on a test. There may be the specially gifted ones, but they are very few. This form of testing, therefore, relies on the adult to read the instructions for the child to respond to, presumably through demonstration or pencil-and-paper response. Young children find it very difficult to function under assessment methods that rely on verbal ability, focused attention, listening, cooperation, and paper-and-pencil methods.

Then there is the matter of language. In our context where Standard English is not the first language of most of the children enrolled in ECIs, how well will the child be able to understand and follow the verbal instructions of the adult? And even if these instructions are given in the first language, how reliably can the child follow these directives?

3. In the early years, children's development must be assessed holistically. The inherent danger in carrying out this type of assessment is that when assessment targets a narrow set of skills, programmes and teachers gradually ignore the very competencies that children need to build a strong foundation for learning.

In this case, it will not be surprising if teachers in the ECIs begin to narrow the curriculum focus to literacy and numeracy, which, in fact, is 'teaching to the test'. The critical development in the child's affective domain is then reduced to a sidebar issue. This is certainly not a desirable prospect for optimal development of our children.

What of the testing conditions? Are all individuals administering the tests equally and appropriately trained to give the test to assure reliability and validity of results? And are there enough individuals per group of children to be able to effectively handle the assessment process involving several four-year-olds?

Good intentions can backfire, and the last thing we want is to introduce another level of testing in our education system that is inappropriate, unreliable, and potentially damaging for the targeted age group. Useful assessment of four-year-old children must involve a combination of sustained and systematic observations, using the right tools of observation and focusing on all areas of the child's developmental progress and needs.

- Rose Davies is an early childhood educator. Email feedback to