Early Childhood Authentic Assessments: Necessary for Good Instruction or Irreparably Harmed by Toxic Test-Based Accountability

by Denisha Jones

This was not the topic I planned to write about for my second back-to-school piece but given some of the social media comments from my last blog I felt the need to respond. In my list of ten suggestions for parents to demand a right to play I included asking if their child’s teacher engaged in play-based assessment and then linked to a couple of resources to share.  My thinking was that if teachers learn to assess children authentically during free play, the time allotted to free play will increase, and the use of standardized computerized assessment would decrease.  Some readers took issue with the idea of assessing children during play insisting that it would contribute to the increase in data collection and turn something as wonderful as free play into an opportunity to “systematically assess for social activity”. To be fair I am not even sure what a systematic assessment of social activity is, but nonetheless I feel the need to explore the benefit of authentic early childhood assessment deeper. 

Now I fully understand how high stakes standardized testing and the push to make sure all students are “college and career ready” has created a toxic test-based accountability nightmare for public education. I am also fully aware of how data collection through these standardized tests turns children into data points and transforms real teaching and learning into “personalized learning” or as I like to call it de-personalized learning i.e., learning in front of a computer all day (for more on my take read this article). I have been active in the fight to stop the privatization of public education since I returned to Washington, DC in 2011 and began working with grassroots groups such as the Badass Teacher’s Association, United Opt Out National, Save Our Schools, Defending the Early Years, and the Network for Public Education.  I have spoken out against privatization through charters and vouchers, the racist history of standardized testing and how they continue to marginalize students of color, and de-professionalization of teaching through the expansion of fast-track teacher preparation programs like Teach for America.  And more importantly, I base my teaching and research as a teacher educator and critical scholar on disrupting the neoliberal assault on public education.  I am not trying to toot my own horn, but instead demonstrate that I am very aware of what is happening regarding testing and I am in no way supportive of the test-based accountability movement.
But, as a teacher educator, I recognize the value of authentic assessment. I believe that you cannot teach students without assessing students. Teaching and learning are part of a cycle that includes assessment. I remember a few years ago, being at a rally to save public education outside of the Department of Education and a passerby asking if as an educator I did not believe in assessment. I explained to him the same way I do to my students, assessments are a necessary part of teaching and learning, but standardized assessments are only one kind of assessment and they are not as reliable or valid as we have been led to believe. Furthermore, the insistence that we test all children all the time through standardized measures, is tantamount to education malpractice because it destroys childhood and education. 

​I do not know how to prepare future teachers to engage in quality teaching without being able to assess their students. Additionally, I want my students to use assessment as a tool to improve teaching and learning and not to punish students, teachers, schools, or communities. When my students observe (and assess) students during free play they are asked to see the child’s strengths and focus on what the child can do and not what the child cannot do. This is the best way I know how to ensure that these future teachers will have a valid option when it comes to deciding how to plan for instruction based on knowledge of their students.  I know that high stakes standardized testing has turned assessment into a dirty word. But I wonder, is there still room for authentic early childhood assessments, or have we lost the ability to find the good in any assessment due to the toxic world of test-based accountability we are currently experiencing? I would love to hear your thoughts.  

Comments 0

  1. Education requires assessments. This is appropriate for parents and educators alike. Now, what do we mean by assessment? Deb Curtis has some great books about the power of observing young children to see what they do. This information informs our instruction and preparation for the correct environment for the child. All teachers and parents would benefit from training in observing children. But testing young children in any way, shape or form??? NO.

  2. The initial blog post suggested that parents ask teachers for authentic assessment of unstructured play. I cannot fathom any parent that would want such a thing, especially given how new types of social-emotional learning assessments are being rolled out to support financialization of the early childhood space by predators like Jim Heckman and Robert Dugger of Ready Nation. Do parents want to have conversations with their child’s teachers about how their children are doing while under their care? Sure. Do they need a structured rubric of metrics? No. The types of assessments your post opens the door to are the very ones that will be used to behaviorally profile students well beyond their tender pre-k years. Nothing in this follow up post indicates that you have absorbed the actual critique raised, which is how these assessments will feed social impact investment markets. Did you not actually look at any of the resources provided? Because if you did it seems you might have found a way to respond that content in this post. So, I’m guessing that you did not look into it, or if you did you were sufficiently put off by what you found that you didn’t want anyone else to know about it either. Let me say it again. Parents do not want “assessments” of play. Investors want “assessments” of play. Whose side is DEY on? That is what I very much want to know. For those who want to understand what is at stake you can read this post about Heckman, Pritzker and their awful plans. https://wrenchinthegears.com/2018/06/10/heckman-and-pritzker-pitch-apps-as-poverty-solutions-yielding-a-13-return-on-investment/

    1. DEY was founded in 2012 with three principal goals: (1) to mobilize the early childhood community to speak out with well-reasoned arguments against inappropriate standards, assessments, and classroom practices; (2) to track the effects of new standards, especially those linked to the Common Core State Standards, on early childhood education policy and practice; and (3) to promote appropriate practices in early childhood classrooms and support educators in counteracting current reforms which undermine these appropriate practices.
      DEY is opposed to social impact bonds, online preschools, high-stakes standardized testing, developmentally inappropriate early learning standards including Common Core, personalized learning, and the International Early Learning and Child Well-Being Study (IELS), and many other attempts to standardize, privatize, and destroy early childhood education.
      DEY advocates for children, just as we always have. The Heckman and Pritzker post cited by our commenter is extremely alarming, however also alarming are the leaps made from authentic assessments and observations with a clipboard, to a scenario involving a rubric used to behaviorally profile children to feed the social impact markets.
      Young children learn through play. Authentic assessment of play is necessary to understand how children learn. As we’ve previously stated, DEY supports these assessments as a part of teaching. It is not the enemy when used appropriately.
      We do not believe that all parents are opposed to assessments of play and we are not investors who want assessments of play. We stand by play-based assessments as an appropriate practice in early childhood classrooms. And we support teachers and teacher educators who encourage more free play and use that time to observe children, get to know them, and plan curriculum that is meaningful.

      1. I will note that this blog post stated NOTHING about these incredibly alarming developments in the pre-k space. This is despite the fact that the author was provided considerable background material on these issues after the initial post. I find the fact that DEY would post a follow up blog on the same topic that completely sidesteps the major concerns raised and then rely on the comment section of said post to address what should have been the primary focus of this piece to be very illuminating. Thus far no one commenting has asked for assessments of play. Nope. Nice try though.

    2. I think that what would be most beneficial is that we observe children at play which gives us the information to provide authentic assessment. Knowing how to observe and to use those observations to make meaningful connections and opportunities for children is the key to personalizing instruction in the early years.

  3. Also something most people won’t be aware of is the fact that the state of Massachusetts, where DEY is based, is exploring the idea of social impact bonds tied to social-emotional learning. So, when you ask parents to ask teachers for “authentic” assessments of unstructured play, you are actually opening the door to predatory tools of behavioral profiling that will serve the interests of global financial markets NOT children. As much as you might want to believe it’s about a “clipboard,” I think if you look closely at the power dynamic here between your organization and players like Jim Heckman and Robert Dugger and Paul Tudor Jones, you will realize you are NOT the ones who will prevail. They will use you and your “clipboard” visions to get what they want, which is surveillance play tables tied to Teaching Strategies Gold rubrics. What we need right now is people who have the courage to step back, look at the big picture and decide to expose what is happening and to actively not cooperate and encourage others to do the same. No half measures. More on the Social Emotional Learning for Massachusetts program and their plans to tie it to social impact bonds here: https://www.sel4ma.org/sel-to-reduce-costs/

  4. I love your organization and have found it a resource for many arguments in academia, activism and on my radio show. Having said that, I have become increasingly opposed to most things that are called “assessment.” Learning happens for my students when I provide exciting, varied, loving and important experiences. Of course I’m checking out what’s happening, but calling that an assessment depersonalizes it and implies that I am writing it down to be used as “data.” In this environment being an ‘extremist” on this issue seems the best route to salvation.

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful reminder that assessment is a critical part of teaching. We must advocate that authentic, observational assessments are used to inform teaching choices. But we must also guard against framing all assessment as necessarily harmful.

  6. I would love to see a thorough analysis of how Creative Curriculum has evolved from a guide to using knowledge of infant/toddler development and individual children’s needs and preferences to a rigid data collection system focused on specific behavioral indicators (which ignores many important ones). When the constraints of this system are combined with the rigidness of ITERS, it enslaves and paralyzes the teacher into constantly focusing on compliance and removes any sense of professional discretion. When materials that should be guidelines and aids in teachers developing and using their toolbox become the ends instead of a means to an end, something is very wrong- especially when one head teacher is expected to collect data on and plan for 16+ infants and toddlers, as opposed to the 3 or 4 in a primary caregiving group as described in the books.