Standards, assessments, and portfolios: Getting started
of these describes you and your program?
My program administers pre-admission evaluations to all children
to make sure they meet strong entrance criteria. Children are
tested regularly to make sure they are learning. Parents must
make an appointment before visiting.
Children spend time with me doing whatever they please. Learning
can wait for public school. Parents don’t ask about how
their children are doing.
I observe children and use observation notes to plan activities
that I think children will enjoy while they develop physical,
emotional, cognitive, and social skills. I meet with parents
I use lesson plans from a book, and little changes year to year—all
children are the same, after all. Sometimes parents come along
on field trips.
My program uses a set of criteria to make sure teachers are
prepared to help children learn in age and developmentally appropriate
ways. Parents are welcome in the classroom anytime.
We have regular staff meetings to make sure all teachers follow
the planned curriculum. Parents have a copy of the plan but seldom
ask questions about it.
Standards—that powerful buzz word in elementary and secondary
education—have trickled down to the traditionally exempt
world of early care and education. Today, teacher preparation,
program quality, and curriculum content are addressed in federal,
state, and local legislation; parent-teacher forums; and professional
Do standards mean that all children have to learn in the same
way, at the same time, everywhere? Does having standards mean
that every playground, every classroom, and every curriculum
will be identical? Does using standards mean that all early childhood
education programs will have evaluations, tests, and a one-size-fits-all
The answer to these questions is a firm no.
But if early childhood programs have a purpose beyond keeping
children safe while parents work, and if programs are sincerely
interested in the development, support, and well-being of young
children, standards are essential. Standards set and reinforce
a program’s responsibility to understand how children learn
and mark their growth and development. In addition, standards
enable teachers to plan curriculum to support optimum growth
and communicate with children’s families.
Standards in public education continue to be a political hot
potato. Reform movements arise, legislation is passed, and competency
measures are set. While early childhood educators originally
distanced themselves from the standards movement, many in the
field (educators, academics, public health advocates, policy
makers, and parents) are now working to set standards for teacher
preparation, program administration, curriculum, assessment,
and parent/family communication (Seefeldt 2005).
Two voluntary membership organizations, the National Association
for the Education of Young Children and the Association for Childhood
Education International, have led the way in identifying and
formalizing a framework for program, teacher preparation, and
curriculum standards. Standards for federally funded early care
and education programs like Head Start are in place, but no universal
standards are mandated for all early childhood programs.
So how does a program get started with standards? There is an
efficient, ethical, and cost-effective entry into the maze: Start
with the children. Gather the evidence that documents children’s
growth, use the evidence to plan meaningful learning experiences,
and share the results with children’s families.
How do we measure growth? Clearly the appropriate tool must relate
to what we are measuring. A yardstick and a scale give us information
about the physical size of objects. The gas gauge on a car’s
dashboard indicates the distance one can travel without buying
more fuel. Unfortunately, early childhood educators are often
pressed to measure children’s growth using inappropriate
Historically, quality early childhood programs have relied on
child observation and assessment. Teachers use comprehensive,
multi-faceted assessment strategies to produce a valid, authentic
picture of a child’s development and skills. Teachers argue
that a child’s unique talents, interests, and progress
are best documented by gathering multiple sources of information
and reviewing the information regularly.
They recognize that uneven development across the physical, social,
cognitive, and emotional domains is normal and expected. Further,
they hold that high-stakes testing, rating scales, and other
formal evaluations pressure teachers to teach to the test—not
to the natural, individual, experiential, and fluid ways young
children grow and learn.
What does assessment look like in early childhood classrooms?
Effective assessment—taking stock of a child’s growth
and development—is the process of gathering, organizing,
and interpreting information about children.
Assessment relies on gathering several forms of evidence—signs
or indications—about a child’s development or learning
(McAfee et al, 2004). No single source of evidence (a standardized
test or a single observation) is ever adequate in assessment.
Assessment has four significant functions. It allows all teachers
identify a child’s current knowledge and skills,
plan for children’s needs and strengths,
identify areas in which a child might require special services,
share information about children with their parents.
Without assessment, how do we know what to do? How do we know
what works? Certainly most children give us clues about their
interests and needs. But are we serving children well when we
acknowledge a child’s encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs
and ignore aggression and an inability to play with other children?
Assessment provides a picture of children that can direct a teacher’s
planning both for individual children and for the group. It also
provides the support documents that enable teachers to share
meaningful and descriptive information with parents.
In many early care and education programs, the goal is authentic
assessment—using tools that document a child’s growth
and development over time and in real-life situations. The result
is an individualized, accurate, and always current picture of
Gathering evidence and documenting growth
As a tape measure is to successful carpentry, developmental milestones
are to assessment. Develop-mental milestones are the result
of clinical and real-life observations that describe the physical/motor,
social, emotional, and cognitive/language skills most children
have achieved at a particular age.
Developmental milestones describe—simply and concretely—the
differences between 2- and 4-year-old children or the red flags
that point to developmental delays, for example. Without knowledge
of developmental milestones, teachers have no starting point,
no framework for determining expectations and developing curriculum
plans for a group of children.
Early childhood educators emphasize discovering what a child
already knows and is able to do. They gather information from
multiple sources to produce an authentic assessment of a child’s
skills. This gathering process, using simple and available tools,
gives teachers a much more accurate picture of a young child’s
abilities than testing in a sterile, formal setting.
Math skills, for example, are most effectively evaluated through
daily observations and conversations with a child building with
unit blocks, balancing counting bears, ordering pencils by length,
and completing jigsaw puzzles.
In authentic assessment teachers collect and document children’s
work and behavioral samples (or evidence) in real-life settings.
Each of the following sources of evidence has pros and cons.
The sources you use will depend upon your program and classroom
structure, the ages of children, the purpose of the assessment,
and your skills and comfort.
Each provides some information but remember, it’s the combination
of information from different sources that gives the best picture
of a child.
A checklist is a systematic, printed tool that allows teachers
to measure the basic skills most children have at a particular
age or developmental stage. Checklists cover all domains, are
easy to use, and are available from many sources for free.
To be an effective tool, the checklist must be dated and updated
regularly to supplement other sources of evidence.
Interviews and conferences
Interviews are personal, guided conversations that allow teachers
to gather information about a child. An interview with any
significant adult in the child’s life—a parent,
grandparent, sibling, or mentor—can provide information
from the family’s perspective. Dated, purposeful interviews
with children can provide information on concept development,
language and social skills, personality, and interests.
Open-ended interview questions are an easy and effective way
to gather information. Requests such as “Tell me what you
know about pets” can give teachers information on language
ability, background knowledge, and experience.
Successful interviews—and relationships with adults and
children—rely on whether the teacher can keep confidential
or sensitive information private.
Asking a child (from 3 to 8 years old) to draw a self-portrait
gives teachers information about the child’s fine-motor
skills and body awareness. The self-portrait is not appropriate
as a psychological diagnostic tool in the classroom.
To get an accurate picture of the child, the self-portrait
exercise should be repeated regularly.
Anecdotal records are dated, short notes that document specific
skills or activities. They allow teachers to identify and watch
for specific attri-butes—sorting pegs by color, length
of sentences, or friendships in peer groups, for example. Effective
records are objective observations, not opinion or analysis.
They quote a child’s words exactly or describe what a
child does as observable fact. “The child stood with
clinched fists,” not “The child seemed angry.”
Dated anecdotal records provide a continuous chronological
picture of a child’s development.
Work samples create a picture of development across domains.
Work samples may include artwork, journals, scribbles and writing,
and photographs of work (measuring a flower bed, constructing
with unit blocks, or balancing on one foot, for example). Always
date work samples accurately.
Invite children to participate in the decision about which
samples are saved. This conferencing helps children begin to
evaluate their work and allows them to discuss (and dictate)
the steps that went into completing the project.
Collect work samples often and regularly.
Evaluating growth and development
Effective assessment includes responding to the collection of
evidence of each child’s growth—comparing your
documentation on each child against age and developmentally
appropriate milestones or standards. Without evaluating, you
may have a fine pile of notes and records but nothing that
guides you in planning for children’s needs, evaluating
your teaching strategies, tracking a child’s progress,
or identifying a child’s need for support services.
Like developmental milestones, standards are developed to provide
a framework of consistent expectations for children at specific
ages and developmental levels. Because each child is unique,
however, teachers must mold instruction to fit each child’s
individual strengths and needs. Effective assessment can guide
instructional practices, helping teachers invent, blend, and
modify strategies to meet the needs of every child.
Because assessment relies on gathering evidence of children’s
development from multiple sources, many teachers use portfolios
to assemble and store the record of a child’s growth. A
portfolio is a purposeful collection of evidence, gathered over
time that verifies a child’s growth and development. It
exists to help make sense of a child’s work. It enables
children, and their teachers and parents, to observe and assess
developmental and skill progress over a stated time. The portfolio
is always in process, never a final product.
More simply, a portfolio is an organizational tool for assessment
evidence—work samples, observations, checklists, self-portraits,
anecdotal records, logs, photographs, interviews, and even video
or tape recordings, for example.
Basic guidelines for portfolio maintenance include:
Have one portfolio for each child. Allow children to have a
say in what is included. If children have different teachers
for special activities like music or gym, incorporate all assessment
documents into a single portfolio.
Use whatever storage unit suits your classroom space. File
folders, accordion falls, poster board folders, artist portfolios,
and large plastic bags with hangers work. Use portfolio units
that store work samples without folding. If the work is too big
to store, take a picture of it. Choose portfolio units that can
withstand frequent handling—by you and the children.
Organize the materials in the portfolios chronologically. Even
if you use categories such as curriculum area or developmental
domain, maintain the time sequence.
Sharing children’s work
Organized portfolios allow you to evaluate each child’s
achievements, developing skills, and possible red flags. Use
the portfolio of assessment evidence to compare the child’s
current work with earlier work—never one child against
another. Do you see progress that is consistent across developmental
milestones, your curriculum, and behavioral expectations? Are
there areas of achievement, ability, strength, weakness, and
Families want to know how their children are doing—how
they learn, interact, and respond to success or disappointment.
They appreciate concrete, specific examples of their child’s
work. Sharing a child’s portfolio helps parents make a
meaningful and personal connection to your teaching tasks; it
builds parent-teacher partnerships that best support children.
Ideally, a child’s portfolio can be the concrete springboard
or centerpiece in conferences with parents, teacher self-evaluation,
curriculum planning, and ongoing classroom instruction.
Gober, Sue. 2002. Six
Simple Ways to Assess Young Children. Albany,
N.Y.: Delmar-Thompson Learning.
Gronlund, Gaye and Bev Engel. 2001. Focused
Portfolios: A Complete Assessment for the Young Child. St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.
Gronlund, Gaye and Marlyn James. 2005. Focused
Observations: How to Observe Children for Assessment and Curriculum
St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press.
McAfee, Oralie; Deborah Leong; and Elena Bodrova. 2004. Basics
of Assessment: A Primer for Early Childhood Educators. Washington,
D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
for Appropriate Curriculum Content and Assessment in Programs
Serving Children Ages 3 Through 8. 2003. National
Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments
of Education. http://naecs.crc.uiuc.edu/position/currcont.html.
Seefeldt, Carol. 2005. How
to Work with Standards in the Early Childhood Classroom. New York: Columbia College Press.