Collection of Early Childhood Assessment Resources

Writing from Day 4 of Massachusetts’ Early Educators Leadership Institute, I want to share a set of resources on early childhood assessment that Albert Wat (National Governors Association) and Linda Warren (Early Childhood Associates) have pulled together.

In addition to general information on assessment, the resources are organized by 8 topics, including, for example:

  • Finding Time to Use Assessments
  • Conducting and Aligning Environmental and Instructional Practice Assessments
  • Engaging Families as Sources and Consumers of Data
  • Effective Professional Development Models

You can find the resources at Early Childhood Assessment Resources.

“What Every School Can Learn From Preschools”

See National Public Radio’s story on a new report from the New America Foundation, Skills for Success: Supporting and Assessing Key Habits, Mindsets, and Skills PreK-12.

From the NPR article:

… the best tack is to hold entire schools accountable for creating atmospheres that instill or support these qualities. This can be done using tools like school climate surveys and sharing the information publicly.

It’s a good time to have this conversation. Most states, and the federal government, have expanded access to preschool in the last year. To evaluate those programs, they use a wide palette: classroom observation, self-reporting, and more.

This report suggests importing some of that more holistic approach to accountability into the higher grades. This doesn’t mean replacing an emphasis on academic rigor with something fuzzy and hard to quantify. “It’s a false choice,” says Tooley. Schools can and should be doing both.

Kindergarten-Readiness Tests Gain Ground

This Education Week article discusses new kindergarten-readiness assessments, including advances and concerns. See comments by Kyle Snow and Libby Doggett in the excerpts below.

All 3,500 kindergarten teachers in Maryland are using a new readiness assessment this year that rests on teachers’ observations of children’s work and play to build a detailed picture of what they need as they begin the school year.

What’s happening here reflects a national surge of interest in better sizing up and serving children as they enter the K-12 school system. Parr’s Ridge teacher Amy Knight is one of tens of thousands of teachers who are learning new ways of merging assessment with observation and instruction.

Experts say that Maryland’s new kindergarten assessment showcases key features of age-appropriateness for young children. “It’s right in the middle of the plate when it comes to good practice” in early-childhood assessment, said Kyle L. Snow, who has studied the issue as a senior scholar at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Libby Doggett, who oversees the Early Learning Challenge Grant program as the deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education, said the department’s guidance incorporates the early-childhood field’s cautionary notes about age-appropriate testing.

The guidance says such tests should be used to “provide information to help close the school readiness gap at kindergarten entry, to inform instruction in the early elementary school grades, and to notify parents about their children’s status and involve them in decisions about their children’s education. [They] should not be used to prevent children’s entry into kindergarten or as a single measure for high-stakes decisions.”

Early Learning Assessment Literacy

Early Learning Assessment Literacy

See The Early Learning Assessment Literacy Challenge at New America EdCentral for an article on the effective use of assessments in early childhood education. The article includes a number of embedded links to useful guidance documents, including Early Childhood Assessment: Implementing Effective Practice.

From the EdCentral article:

“A strong consensus among education experts supports the notion that one of the best ways to improve instructional strategies and ultimately boost outcomes for individual students is through the use of assessment-generated data. This focus on assessment and using data to drive decision-making for both accountability and instruction has resulted in a proliferation of new policies and practices. It has also encouraged development of new resources, materials, and products, as well as  sparked conversations among stakeholders about the appropriate use of assessment. In the current educational landscape, classroom teachers, school principals, district administrators, and state and federal policymakers spend significant time thinking about who, what, why, how, and when to assess.”

Communities of Practice in Lowell: Supporting Family Child Care and Center-based Providers

As discussed last week, there are multiple entry points for understanding Lowell’s Birth-Third work—the Leadership Alignment Team, the use of the CLASS tool, the emerging school readiness agenda—but a good place to start is with Lowell’s communities of practice. Supporting family childcare providers is a logistically more challenging and less common component of Birth-Third initiatives.[1] The communities of practice are a direct form of professional development that reaches both family childcare providers and community-based centers using the FCCERS-R and ECERS-R tools. They show that even within the boundary-spanning work that Birth-Third improvement requires there is a critical role for tailored work within sectors on improving quality.

Lowell’s communities of practice bring to life and make real the well-known challenges associated with supporting family childcare providers and small community-based preschools. We often refer to the egg crate nature of teaching in schools. School teachers are separated in classrooms and work independently and thus are isolated, or were traditionally. Now many K-12 schools are much more deliberate about creating opportunities for teachers to work together in teams or professional learning communities. In the case of family child care providers, however, the isolation is even more extreme. Rather than in a crate, each egg is packaged individually. There is simply no egg in the dimple next door. Likewise, many teachers in small center-based programs lack opportunities to collaborate with teachers and coaches outside their center. 

The child care providers in Lowell’s communities of practice explicitly acknowledge the isolating nature of their work (“we don’t network enough”). They also make it palpably clear—through their responses to the meetings—how valuable it is for them to come together in a structured way to work on their practice. They describe the experience as “eye-opening,” revelatory in some cases, and according to some it has impacted every aspect of their classrooms and their teaching.

The communities of practice are led by Teresa Harrison, who is trained in the ECERS-R, FCCERS-R, and CLASS tools and does a range of work related to the Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS) for the Lowell Public Schools. Ten family childcare providers began by meeting monthly with Harrison in the community of practice and then asked to increase the meetings to twice a month. Recruiting centers to participate in the work in the middle of last year proved more difficult, and thus the partnership took the opportunity to work intensively on a monthly basis with one center that was requesting support with the QRIS system. The teachers in this center are now better prepared to work with other centers, and the plan is to add teachers from more centers this coming year.

The ECERS-R tool includes 43 criteria organized into 7 subscales, such as “space and furnishings,” “language-reasoning,” and “program structure.” Using the ECERS-R or FCCERS-R tool as a framework, the communities of practice participants discuss a wide range of topics, including play, centers, math, science, hygiene, gross motor activities, art, drama, and dance.[2]

A good example of a community of practice conversation took place in one of the meetings with the center-based teachers. Through visits to the center and previous discussions with the participants, Harrison identified best practices in discipline and staff-child interactions as topics of interest for the participants and had begun to provide related support. At this meeting Harrison discussed staff-child interactions, drawing on the approach of the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). Lowell Public Schools has provided extensive professional development on CSEFEL for its pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers and advocates its use throughout the community.[3]

Clearly the center teachers understood the importance of their relationships with their students, yet they also appreciated the opportunity to come together off-site and think through how they could do their best in this regard. Harrison shared CSEFEL materials and a video and discussed research on the importance of the teacher/child relationship. She then did an activity using the metaphor of “relationship banks.” When teachers have positive interactions with a child, they are adding to the child’s piggy banks, making a deposit. Negative interactions are withdrawals. When a child’s bank is empty, it is harder to deal with challenging situations. The teachers thought of all the things they could do to make deposits (e.g., “listening,” “following through,” “validating their feelings,” “really listening,” “getting down to their level,” “talking calmly,” and “showing you care”) and withdrawals (“taking things personally,” “showing frustration,” “using a loud voice,” “not being sensitive to their needs,” and “nagging or controlling them”). The discussion served as a forum for exchanging practical ideas and an off-site opportunity to reflect on the tenor of one’s daily interactions with children.

The participants of both communities of practice emphasize that though they learn the expectations of the ECERS-R/FCCERS-R tool relative to the QRIS system, they also learn specific ideas and practices from their colleagues and from Harrison. The ECERS/FCCERS tools serve an interesting and helpful function in these discussions. Conversations typically begin with the participants sharing what they do with regard to a specific item on the tool (e.g., helping children understand language, fine motor skills, or dramatic play). Harrison adds what evaluators in fact look for with regard to the item, highlighting expectations that she knows to be particularly challenging or frequently surprising to teachers: for example, expectations that math be integrated not only during carpet or whole group time but throughout the day during free play; that nature and science activities be included every day; and that TV be limited to no more than 15 minutes at a time and no more than 30 minutes a day (and only for children above 24 months).

Eventually the participants rate themselves on each item within a given category or “sub-scale.” In route, however, discussion of the evaluators’ expectations naturally transition into the learning activities the participants typically do, do not do, could do better, and ideas they could learn from others. In effect, the tools serve to make the conversations less awkward as both of the communities of practice were in the process of building trust and the confidence to share and reflect on their own practice—conversations that can feel personally threatening both with close colleagues and with new acquaintances.

Out of this type of conversation at one meeting crystallized a number of pointers regarding QRIS expectations at one level, but about the current understanding of best practice at another: 

  • The importance of free play and choice (e.g., moving away from one whole group activity followed by clean-up followed by another whole group activity …),
  • Balancing independent exploration and the teacher role in providing structure,
  • Encouraging interactions among children,
  • Encouraging children to solve their own problems (with support),
  • Expanding the use of music, dance, and dramatic play and making art projects less “cookie-cutter” and more creative, and
  • Increasing the proportion of talking and listening that is not directed towards behavior management and control.

From the vantage point of the participants, key take-aways included the need to be more deliberate and organized in setting up centers as discrete areas for specific activities, being mindful of which centers are placed next to each other (i.e., not placing loud centers next to quiet areas), attending to sight lines and the placement of furniture, how not to use time-outs, how to use routines to make activities run more smoothly, and the importance of choice among activities.

The Lowell partnership is planning on deepening its community of practice model with the addition of an on-site coaching component that will complement the monthly meetings. Among other benefits, coaching will provide support in translating the pointers and take-aways from the meetings into practice. We also find this combination of off-site whole group professional development and on-site coaching in Somerville’s literacy coaching model and the Boston’s K1DS curriculum implementation support.

The two communities of practice are soon to come together for a joint CSEFEL training. Lowell’s plan for Round Two of the EEC Alignment Partnership includes continuing these two communities of practice, adding one for administrators of public school and community-based preschools, and developing a pilot community of practice for families led by a parenting coach.

Lowell’s communities of practice broaden the range of professional development and coaching arrangements we find across the first five EEC alignment partnerships. They demonstrate the use of the ECERS-R and FCCERS-R rubrics and a model tailored to family child care providers as well as community-based preschool centers. One family child care provider summed up her experience of the community of practice saying,

“You look at your daycare differently, which is hard to do unless you are in a class like this.”


[1] The Pittsfield Promise also works with family childcare providers and family childcare systems.

[2] A study published last month called into question the relationship between quality as measured by the ECERS-R and child academic and social outcomes. The authors suggest that since that many centers meet the baseline levels of quality the ECERS-R measures, a more nuanced tool may be needed. Nonetheless, most states, including Massachusetts, currently use the ECERS-R as part of their QRIS systems. Further, as will become clear, in the context of the Lowell community of practice, the ECERS-R is being used as a formative professional development tool to guide conversations about best practice with an experienced coach. Used in this way the ECERS-R has the potential improve practice independent of the link between ECERS-R evaluations and child outcomes. We will continue to track the research on the ECERS-R and related tools.

[3] For more on Lowell’s adoption of district social-emotional standards, use of CSEFEL training, and home visiting protocol, see page 36 of Improving Early Years of Education in Massachusetts.

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID. 

Building a Common Vision of Quality across the Birth-Third Continuum

Birth-Third projects often begin with a focus on aligning community-based preschool and kindergarten. For the leaders of Lowell’s Birth-Third initiative, it was important from the outset that their project be broader in scope, spanning the Birth-Third continuum by developing meaningful roles for family childcare providers, community-based preschools, and elementary schools. Lowell’s leaders wanted to build coherence, a common language, and a common vision of improvement across these component parts of the community’s early learning system. Lowell’s alignment partnership is thus explicitly using the EEC alignment grant opportunity to develop common improvement tools and mechanisms across family childcare, community-based preschool, and elementary school—an ambitious project that incorporates a number of distinctive elements.

Lowell’s project is led by the Early Childhood Department of the Lowell Public Schools on behalf of the city’s Early Childhood Advisory Council (ECAC). At the time the EEC grant opportunity appeared, members of the ECAC had been discussing how they might best go about building their capacity to advance along the QRIS system and specifically how to improve their use of the Teaching Strategies Gold assessment system. As a result, improving program quality and child outcomes across the Birth-Third continuum are key goals of the alignment project, goals that in effect serve as overarching themes of the work.[1]

Lowell began its work towards these goals by designing a pilot of sorts that would focus on two challenging low-income neighborhoods. Each neighborhood included a Level 3 or 4 elementary school, a community-based early childhood center, and family childcare providers. The pilot includes the following components:

  • A broad Leadership Alignment Team that includes elementary school principals, leaders of center-based programs and Head Start, representatives from Family Child Care systems, and members of the Lowell Early Childhood Department (i.e., Terry and Pat—see footnote #1),
  • An aligned system of assessments, both of program and classroom quality (i.e., the CLASS classroom observation tool and the ECERS [2] and FCCERS [3] environmental rating scales) and child outcomes (i.e., Teaching Strategies Gold),
  • Professional development in the reliable and effective use of this system of assessments,
  • Two “Communities of Practice,” one for family childcare providers and one for center-based programs, which use the ECERS and FCCERS tools to frame professional development around improving quality and promoting child learning and development,
  • A series of professional development workshops on the Common Core open to the Lowell early childhood community, and
  • Planned family engagement activities, including a community of practice for families facilitated by a parent coach and joint family engagement training across three levels: an elementary school, a feeder community-based preschool, and a feeder family child care system.

The Lowell partnership initially found the dynamics of its Leadership Alignment Team to be challenging. According to a report to the ECAC, participants came to the table with “different frames and levels of understanding of alignment, assessment, and program quality.” After a few meetings, attendance began to drop, pushing the partnership leaders to solicit input from the members and re-group. They restructured the sessions around common readings to provide a common foundation for discussion, and out of these conversations a common agenda emerged around the topic of school readiness. A sub-committee began to investigate school readiness definitions and frameworks in other communities and other states and assemble a variety of research materials. With its work on school readiness the Leadership Alignment Team found its purpose and its footing, and in effect it has added a robust second prong to the neighborhood pilot—creating a city-wide definition of school readiness and a comprehensive school readiness agenda, a topic we will explore in more depth in future posts. Interestingly, with the addition of the school readiness agenda, Lowell’s model echoes the pattern of two-prong approaches (i.e., targeted and community-wide) that we see in Springfield and Somerville.

Common observation and assessment tools play a central role in Lowell’s project. The partnership has trained 55 staff members across one community-based preschool and two elementary schools in the CLASS observation tool. Linda Warren and her team at Early Childhood Associates have conducted CLASS observations in center classes and elementary school classrooms. The elementary schools and centers used trends in the CLASS to help them identify areas of instructional focus in their strategic plans. For example, one school chose to focus on language modeling; the other, concept development. Lowell is working with the CLASS organization to be among the first to use a new version developed specifically for family childcare providers.

The Alignment Team has agreed to use Teaching Strategies Gold (TSG) as a common assessment of child outcomes, and the Lowell Public Schools is piloting the use of TSG in first and second grade classrooms. Lowell plans to deepen its use of TSG data over the next 18 months by hosting quarterly professional development Data Days, deploying a data coach, and developing a system to manage TSG and CLASS data across the Birth-Third system.

Also of note, Lowell’s Alignment Partnership served as a platform for partnering with UMass Boston and was awarded an Improving Teacher Quality grant from the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics from prekindergarten through second grade. Lowell’s experience parallels the Boston K1DS project, which also identified math as an area of need in its participating prekindergarten classrooms and applied for and won a grant to strengthen its professional development support with a targeted series of math workshops.

Lowell’s Alignment Partnership work adds the following design elements to the mix of approaches and strategies found in Birth-Third work in Massachusetts:

  • Engaging family childcare providers, community-based centers, and elementary schools through one initiative focused on quality and aimed at developing coherence,
  • Using classroom observation and child assessment tools as key levers to build common understanding and common language across the Birth-Third continuum,
  • Collaborating on family engagement across schools, preschools, and family childcare providers,
  • Pursuing a community-wide school readiness agenda, and
  • Piloting a range of activities across the Birth-Third continuum in two challenging neighborhoods.

Next week’s post will investigate Lowell’s use communities of practice as a professional development vehicle for both family child care providers and center-based programs, to be followed by future posts on Lowell’s school readiness agenda and on the use of CLASS observations in community-based preschools and elementary schools.

Top Image: Members of Lowell’s Alignment Team and other community members working on the School Readiness Strategic Plan.

[1] With input from the ECAC, Terry O’Neill and Pat Murphy of the Early Childhood Department of the Lowell Public Schools worked with early childhood consultant Linda Warren of Early Childhood Associates to design the Birth-Third alignment partnership.

[2] Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale

[3] Family Child Care Environment Rating Scale

This post was completed as part of a contract between the MA Department of Early Education and Care and Cambridge Education (where David Jacobson worked at the time). Contract # CT EEC 0900 FY13SRF130109CAMBRID.