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Assessment is regarded asa playing a critical role in education, providing essential information on students’ skills and knowledge to help inform improvements in the quality of learning and learning, and insights that can drive improvements in the education system. When children are young, however, assessment becomes increasingly difficult, both technically and ethically.
Some people do not feel that it is appropriate to assess young children in a formal way, as there are concerns about the stress that this can cause them. Others feel that this is worth doing, since the early years of education are crucial in laying foundations for the learning pathways that children will follow throughout their educational journey.
Technical issues in relation to assessing young children can be divided into two components–those related to assessing children before they start school and those that regard assessing children when they are in the first few years of primary school, for example in grades 1 to 3.
Early childhood assessment usually refers to the assessment of children before they start school, often between the ages of two and five, when they are often referred to as being pre-school. Rather than focusing on cognitive domains only, the assessment of pre-schoolchildren needs to take into account cognitive, social, emotional and physical. This means that a range of components tend to be measured, such as motor skills, language skills, self-regulation, concentration and social interactions. The objective of this type of assessment is to identify any additional need of support that children might require. This can be evaluated both for individual children and for a group of children.
It is obviously not possible to give children a formal test at this age, so common methods of assessment include observations and feedback from parents and early childhood teachers. There are also some standardised tests used, for example the Bracken Basic Concept Scale and the Pre-School Language Assessment Instrument.Other approaches, such as the collection of a portfolio of drawings can also give a sense of how children are developing.
Some of the challenges in assessing pre-schoolchildren include factors such as their short attention spans, the fact that they are likely to be easily distracted and the likelihood that they will perform or behave differently with different people. For example, data collected from observation may depend on who is doing the observation as children will respond differently to a parent, a familiar person or a stranger.Due to short attention spans, moreover, it is not possible to assess pre-school children for large amounts of time, so assessment often has to take place in several short periods of time.
Once children reach primary school, it still remains relatively difficult to assess them. This is for similar reasons, such as short attention spans and the ease of being distracted, as well as the potential to cause distress. Nevertheless, standardised assessments in the first years of school are becoming increasingly common. This is because education policymakers are concerned that unless problems are identified early, children will never catch up with their peers. Assessments include England’s national curriculum assessments at the end of grade 2and Australia’s NAPLAN in grade 3.
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Assessing young children is difficult, in many ways much more difficult than assessing older students or adults. This is due to a number of technical, ethical and practical issues. Some of these issues are the same for both pre-school children and those in the early years of primary school while other issues are specific to each group.
The assessment of pre-school children (those aged between two and five) is challenging, both in the scope of what should be assessed and the approach to be used. Early childhood development consists of four key domains–social, emotional, cognitive and physical–and it is common for early childhood assessment to measure many or all of these.
Any approach to early childhood assessment needs to be created by those with a deep understanding of how children develop, and to take account of the many differences between children. Common areas of assessment include motor skills (both gross and fine), self-control, language skills, concentration, behaviour, social interaction and memory. In some cases, pre-reading and pre-numeracy skills are also assessed.
The Measuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes (MELQO) initiative has created two child development and learning modules, one for use in observing children and one to survey parents or teachers. This reflects the common approaches to early-childhood assessment. One of the challenges is objectivity, for two reasons. First, children behave differently, depending on whether they are being observed by a parent, early childhood teacher or stranger. Second, the observers themselves may find objectivity difficult.
Once children are in primary school, assessment remains challenging, especially among disadvantaged populations. This is partly because children may have very limited literacy and numeracy. This means that if assessment materials are to be developed, they must include the assessment of pre-literacy and pre-numeracy skills so that inferences can be drawn on even the weakest students (for example, they may not be able to read or count but might be able to distinguish numbers and letters from other shapes).
It is also very difficult for young children to sit quietly and respond to a test so administration must be carefully considered. This includes one-on-one administration (although up to five young children can be successfully assessed at the same time) and keeping the test very short. Moreover, young children cannot be expected to read instructions, hence verbal instructions are needed (and will need to be repeated several times).
In some cases, digital devices have been successfully deployed, for example using tablets and headphones to assess young children. The interactive, game-like nature of digital assessment can help to remove the stress of assessment from young children, and it is possible for them to listen to verbal instructions through the headphones (which also reduce external distractions). While there are concerns about using digital devices to test children if they have not used them before, children’s intuitive way of learning means that with a little practice they are soon very comfortable using them (usually much more quickly than adults).
Overall, while it is possible to collect assessment data from both pre-primary children and children in early grades, there are significant challenges in doing so. The collection of large scale, comparable and objective data is much more difficult than with older children and validity and reliability are also two concerns for data collected from young children. With very careful design, planning and implementation, assessment of young children can be done, and done well, however
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There are a number of technical, ethical and practical issues the assessment of young children. As with any other form of assessment, it is important to balance the advantages versus the costs. In this case, the costs are financial–assessing young children is much more expensive than assessing older students due to the intensive nature of the exercise–as well as emotional–young children are likely to be distressed if assessment is not handled well and many people argue that the potential damage is not worth the benefits.
Early childhood assessment focuses on children between the ages of two and five. It primarily involves observation and reports by parents and early-childhood teachers. Overtime, an increasing good understanding of child development means that early childhood assessments are better able to collect valid information. They tend to focus on the collection of data on a combination of physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. TheMeasuring Early Learning Quality and Outcomes (MELQO) initiative has created two child development and learning modules, one for use in observing children and one to survey parents or teachers.
For children in the early years of primary school, tools such as the Early Grade ReadingAssessment (EGRA) and Early Grade Mathematics Assessment (EGMA) are available for use. They are designed to provide simple, low-cost measures of literacy and numeracy and are delivered orally, one-on-one. Their translated versions are often criticised, however, for failing to take account of ways in which students learn in different languages. Hence another alternative is to develop alternative assessment tools.
One of the challenges in developing assessment tools for early grade students is that they may have very little numeracy or literacy. It cannot be assumed, for example, that children in grades 1, 2, 3 or even higher have gained grade appropriate skills. It is therefore essential that assessment instruments include items on the building blocks of numeracy and literacy so that some useful information can be collected from even the weakest performing students.
There are tools available, such as the Uwezo (http://www.uwezo.net/assessment/tools/) tools created for use in Southern Africa, but care should be taken to adapt these appropriately for the local context, and the language being used. In multi-lingual countries, great caution should be used in comparing results across languages. The ways that children learn language can vary significantly across languages, and particularly across different language families, which may render comparisons totally invalid.
Implementation of assessment with young children is also an area that needs great care and attention. One-on-one administration is often recommended but is both time consuming and resource intensive. Alternatives include assessing students in small groups, with or without the use of digital technologies (which can help with the fact that early-grade children need to receive oral instructions).Household surveys such as ASER can also be appropriate ways of assessing young children in their own homes.
Overall, while it is possible to collect valuable assessment data from young children, the skill required in doing so is very high, and great care must be taken in development, implementation and interpretation of data.