ETS Issues "Primer" on Preschool Assessment

Authors detail current state Pre-K policies and approaches.


Princeton, NJ (February 14, 2012) —

As millions of dollars in government spending flows to states seeking to strengthen the quality of early education programs, a new report from Educational Testing Service (ETS) summarizes the challenges and current state approaches to assessing the learning outcomes of children enrolled in Pre-K.

The report, State Pre-K Assessment Policies: Issues and Status, was created to serve as a resource for educators who wish to incorporate assessments into their programs for young children.

"The process of documenting preschoolers' learning can reveal children's strengths, needs, and progress, as well as how effective their Pre-K programs are in enhancing their skills and knowledge," says Richard Coley, co-author and Executive Director in the Research & Development division at ETS. "This information can also guide decisions about the assistance or training teachers need and/or how individual classroom experiences and program policies might be improved to better serve and educate young children."

The authors note that over the past 10 years, despite economic challenges and uneven spending on early-education programs, enrollment of 4-year-olds in Pre-K programs has grown. Coley, along with co-author Debra Ackerman reviewed different assessment approaches and the policies on their use in 50 Pre-K programs in 40 states.

"Our review identified a preference for comprehensive observation-based protocols over direct assessments," says Ackerman, Lead Research Project Manager at ETS. "This type of measure allows children to be assessed while engaged in everyday program activities within their classrooms, as opposed to being asked to perform discrete tasks that may not be connected to what they are learning or doing at a particular time. And, of the 50 Pre-K programs that collect child outcome data as part of the monitoring process, just three report policies requiring the annual administration and reporting of such data," she adds. "A majority report that such measures must be administered and reported two or three times during the school year."

In addition, the authors discuss some of the challenges in documenting young children's learning including the fact that traditional, read and respond, filling in a bubble, circling an answer, or writing methods are unlikely to produce useful data about what a 4-year- old knows or can do. Children's attention spans and ability to sit for any length of time or interact with unfamiliar adults are also problematic.

The authors describe the three main approaches to assessing young children's learning:

  • Direct assessments — valid and reliable for providing evidence about whether children are meeting a specific skill or knowledge benchmark; less burdensome on teachers administering and scoring them, but may not provide a full understanding of a child's skill set or the quality of the program
  • Observation checklists and scales — more labor intensive for teachers than direct assessments, but considered more "authentic" by observing children on a day-to-day basis while engaged in everyday program activities
  • Samples of children's work — also labor intensive for teachers collecting purposeful samples of children's written work, but complementary to observations and also considered to be a more "authentic" measure of children's abilities

The authors also examined the extent to which individual Pre-K providers can choose which assessments to use in their classrooms. Twenty-one Pre-K programs report a policy mandating the use of a required measure or measures; 10 programs have policies that allow Pre-K providers to select from a menu of approved child outcome measures; and 19 programs allow individual providers to go beyond the menu approach by providing them with varying degrees of latitude to select which outcome measure(s) should be used.

"An ETS report on early literacy assessment issued eight years ago concluded that, monitoring the literacy development of young children and evaluating the effectiveness of programs cannot be accomplished by administering a single test during the academic year," adds Coley. "The results of our survey appear to indicate that states are, for the most part, complying with that recommendation. Hopefully this primer will be useful to education policymakers and practitioners as early education initiatives expand and the need to document their effectiveness increases, particularly in challenging economic times."

Printed copies of State Pre-K Assessment Policies: Issues and Status can be ordered for $15 (prepaid) from: Policy Information Center, Mailstop 19-R, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Road, Princeton, NJ 08541-0001, or by calling (609) 734-5212. Copies can be downloaded from:

About ETS

At nonprofit ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded as a nonprofit in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually — including the TOEFL® and TOEIC® tests, the GRE® tests and The Praxis Series™ assessments — in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide.