All about assessments: what they are, how to administer them, and provide meaningful results to parents podcast

All about assessments: what they are, how to administer them, and provide meaningful results to parents [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we welcome Dr. Christina Bretz, Senior Professional Learning Developer at Learning Without Tears. We chat about preschool assessments: what they are, how to administer them, and provide meaningful results to parents!

Dr. Christina loves watching children get excited when they learn a new concept. Seeing learning through a young child’s eyes is very rewarding and fulfilling for her. Knowing that she is helping young children learn and grow is something that she is passionate about and is why she chose to be a pediatric occupational therapist.

When we think about assessments, a lot of time we think about giving a child a piece of paper to take a test. This is incorrect. The purpose of an assessment is to understand a child’s current level of abilities. When we understand where they are at, it helps us guide our instructions. We can provide the right tools, activities, and curriculum for them.

Preschool is often a child’s first time as a student. They come in at different levels and educators need to meet them where they are at. By assessing their skills, we can ensure we are providing the correct support.

One example of an informal assessment is classroom observations. These look at children’s skills through literacy, numbers, math, readiness in writing, etc. Then educators can start to group children into similar levels of ability based on their findings.

At the beginning of each year, ensure you provide an assessment to understand where each child’s current level of abilities is at. Then, Dr. Christina suggests administering two more assessments, so three total each year. Informal assessments such as classroom observations go on consistently after each curriculum unit is taught. Then you can provide activities to fill in any learning gaps identified.

As mentioned, assessments can be formal and informal. Informal assessments are observations you make as you watch children throughout the day and then plan your next day accordingly based on how each child responds to which activities. You can note strengths and weaknesses to create a portfolio! Formal assessments use more of a standardized method, looking at specific questions to be answered.

Ensure you fully understand the purpose of an assessment before you conduct it. Also, ensure parents understand the purpose and why it was done before you provide the results. After you give an assessment, you want to provide the results to parents in a way that they will understand it. Remove any jargon. Tell them the purpose of the assessment and how the results are being used in the classroom. Start by sharing the child’s strengths and then review their needs and the support you will provide. End with strategies they can use to help with at home!

There is an understanding that there can often be bias in assessments. But as educators, you can read directions, understand the assessment, try not to have any inaccurate conclusions, and administer each assessment in the fairest way.

Dr. Christina’s recommended resources:

Podcast episode transcript

Christina BRETZ:

When I’m talking with parents, I want them to understand what the purpose of the assessment is, why I gave this assessment. So, I think that’s really something that educators need to look at, is that both the formal and informal assessments, understanding that purpose.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Christina, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

BRETZ:

Thank you, Ron. I’m so happy to be here!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re so happy to have you, Christina. For our listeners today, we have Dr. Christina Bretz. She’s senior professional learning developer at Learning Without Tears, a phenomenal organization. And we’re going to chat with Christina today a bit about assessments, something that some of you may be very familiar with; some of you may not be familiar with them at all. But I know I certainly have a lot of questions for Christina about assessments. Let’s start off with the basics, Christina: What’s the purpose of assessments? Why are assessments used in pre-K and preschool settings?

BRETZ:

Well, that’s a great question, Ron. I think when we think about assessments, a lot of times we think of giving a child a piece of paper and having them take a test. Well, really, the purpose of an assessment, especially at our younger ages, is to understand where their current level abilities are. So, when we can understand where they are at, that’s really helping us to guide our instruction.

So, as pre-K teachers, we can know to provide the right tools, to provide the right activities, the right curriculum when we’re teaching our young learners. And for me as an occupational therapist, I always think about, what is the occupation of a child? Well, that occupation or their job is to be a student, even at that preschool age.

So, for preschoolers, when they’re first coming into the classroom, this may be their first time as a student. And we have so many children that are coming into our classroom at different levels. And we really need to meet them at those levels. So, in order to do that, we need to understand where they’re at. And by assessing their skills, we can make sure we’re providing that correct support for children in that pre-K classroom environment.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. What does an assessment look like, a little bit more like tangibly or practically? Like, what is it made up of? How does it work?

BRETZ:

That’s great. I think when we think about assessments, when we think about in the preschool classroom for our young learners, we’re looking at different assessments. We’re looking at classroom observations. We’re looking at ways that we can look at their skills of maybe it’s through language and literacy, through numbers and math. Can they recognize numbers? Maybe it’s through readiness and writing. Are they able to recognize letters? Are they able to understand, this is an A, versus this is a D?

And so those are the things that we’re going to ask them, to be able to recognize those things, to be able to draw a person. And then we can start to look at, as we do those assessments, then we can start to group children into similar levels of ability.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

On what kind of frequency are assessments typically done? Of course, early-childhood educators have a lot going on in their day-to-day. So, surely one concern is, what is the right balance of doing the assessments to make sure we have that information, but also not distracting from the relationships and the interactions that we’re having day-to-day?

BRETZ:

Right. Well, I think one of the biggest things is, we want to first, when we at the beginning of the year, it’s really good to provide an assessment, to administer that, to be able to understand where each child’s current level abilities are. And then there’s also where I suggest to have that assessment be administered three times a year. You could do it at the beginning, the middle and the end of the year.

But there’s also different assessments. There’s, like, formative assessments. And formative assessments are ongoing assessments. So, when we think about formative assessments, this is where we’re looking at, like, classroom observations checklists, things like that – more of a holistic approach. So, with formative assessments, we could do that after each unit is taught.

So, if you’re in a curriculum and you have completed Unit One, then you can administer an assessment to see if those children have mastered what they’ve learned in that unit. And then if they haven’t, well, then that’s where you’re going to provide those activities to help fill in those learning gaps. So really, when you think about assessments, it is that guide to instruction. It’s, “Okay, I see some of my children are having these gaps. Well, how am I going to fill in those gaps? What activities am I going to use to help children to be able to succeed?”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, so that’s kind of the reverse of that question, is how much time should they be spending on it? But of course, they’re going to get value from doing that. And so you’re suggesting that some of their programing and planning should be based on what’s coming out of those assessments?

BRETZ:

Exactly. And even the assessments can be formal and they can be informal. So, even by looking at… I think observation is a key to an informal assessment. You’re watching the children throughout the day and seeing what they’re doing with different activities. And then you can take that and you can plan for your next classroom activities. Maybe it’s looking at, “Okay, well, these children responded positively to these activities. So, I’m going to create some fun, playful learning centers based on what I see with what has happened in the classroom.”

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And so is it recommended that we’re doing both sort of the informal and the formal? Or what’s your thoughts on that?

BRETZ:

I definitely think so. I think there’s a lot of significance to having both informal and formal assessments. So, when we think about informal and formal assessments, the informal assessments are really our observations. That’s really noting those strengths and those weaknesses. And informal is like where you’re collecting their work and maybe you’re creating a portfolio. Well, that’s an informal assessment that you can do.

When I was in the preschool classroom, one of my favorite informal assessments, I would say, is to do this activity called Map Man. And Map Man is something that’s found on the Learning Without Tears website, but it’s where we take our wood pieces and we build Map Man. And then we teach children how to draw a person with this activity. So, it’s a great way to collect information on how a child’s able to draw a person.

And so what we would do at one of the preschools that I was at is one of the teachers would have the children participate in the Map Man activity. And then we would do this once a month, and then the teacher would collect the work each month. And we made a little book and it was called The Book About Me. And so it was a great way and a great example of an informal assessment to be able to see what the children were, what their drawing skills were like in August of building a person at the beginning of the school year, as compared to what it looked like in May at the end of the school year.

So, informal assessments are great. And then formal assessments are, too. And looking at formal assessments, using more of a standardized assessment or questionnaires or rating scales that you’re having, really looking at those specific questions to be answered and creating like a rubric can be used for a formal assessment.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And any tips for educators on how to go about doing assessments, or sort of like common areas where educators might struggle or have questions?

BRETZ:

I think one of the biggest things with when educators are doing an assessment is to really fully understand what the purpose of the assessment is. And I think that’s something that, when I’m looking at assessments, is to be able to understand, “Okay, the purpose of this assessment is X, Y and Z. And so this is why I want to use this assessment.” And then that to me is something that I take to that next level with the parents, is when I’m talking with parents, I want them to understand what the purpose of the assessment is, why I gave this assessment. So, I think that’s really something that educators need to look at, is that both formal and informal assessments, understanding that purpose.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I suppose I’m sure you get a lot more out of it on the other side. Going into it, knowing why and the purpose going into it makes it makes a bunch of sense. And you mentioned parents there. Are assessments something that are commonly shared with parents? Or is it portions of it? How does that work?

BRETZ:

Yes, so that’s a great question. So, I also am an adjunct professor at a local university here. And that is something that I have been talking with my university students about, is that when you give an assessment, when you administer an assessment, you want to be able to be able to give the results to parents in a way that they’re going to understand it. So, take out the educational jargon or the OT jargon, the occupational therapy jargon that parents may not be able to understand, and talk to them about the results in a way that they can understand.

So, like I said before, I first want to tell them the purpose of the assessment. And then I’m going to tell them how those results are being used in the classroom. So, if I have a child that is struggling in one area, then I can say, “Well, this is what we’re doing in the classroom to help with that.” And then I always start, when I’m sharing assessments with parents, is start by giving them the strengths that you see within that assessment and discussing that with the parents the strengths of the child.

And then I’m going to review what I see the needs of the child is, and the needs, the support that we’re going to provide. And then providing those strategies that they can do at home to have that carryover, I think is so key. So, some of those activities may be very simple, like promoting literacy by reading to your child; or promoting number sets by having the child count corners on the sandwich that you have cut into a triangle. Things like that can be very easy for a parent to do, but also very effective because they’re making it a playful but a learning experience in.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And what about training for educators on this? Because I imagine there’s some component of wanting these assessments to be as accurate and objective as possible for each individual child. Is there any element of educator or teacher bias? And if so, is there ways to alleviate that through training or other mechanisms?

BRETZ:

Yeah, I think there’s always understanding that there can be bias in assessments. But I also think that, as teachers, we have that way that we can, “We’re to read those directions. We’re going to understand the attributes of that assessment.” And not trying to have any inaccurate conclusions, really just being able to provide that, administer that assessment in the most fair way. And I think that’s really a way that’s going to help to be able to see what are those learning gaps for that child and then how we can help with that in the classroom.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah. And the other thing I’ll throw out there, too, is, which I like about this is this, is why as an early-childhood educator, you’re a professional. You have to consider these things, right? And that’s what makes you different than a babysitter or somebody that’s just looking after children’s health and safety. This is part of your role as an early-childhood professional, which is taking these things into consideration.

BRETZ:

Exactly, exactly.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Okay, and then what about once a child has graduated from pre-K and they’re moving on to kindergarten and sort of the big, scary school system? Does this continue on? Because usually this is of course one of the big debates. And then you get into kindergarten and it’s all about that school program. And the play aspect kind of starts to fade away, probably a little faster than we would like to…

BRETZ:

Definitely

SPREEUWENBERG: 

… from the perspective of the early-childhood education scene. But what are your thoughts there?

BRETZ:

Yeah, so I think when we think about pre-K, I think about it as, it is the entire year we are getting children ready for kindergarten. So, everything we do at this age is to get them ready for kindergarten. But what if they’re not ready for kindergarten? What if they need more support?

Well, there’s different things that we can do for that. I know at Learning Without Tears, we have a tutoring program that we do that begins in kindergarten. It goes up to third grade for the older kids. But it’s to help them with handwriting. So, again, it starts with an assessment so that we can see where that child is, where their current level of abilities are. And it’s going to focus in on those handwriting skills.

And then they’re provided… it’s all virtual. So, anyone can use it around the world. And then that way you’re choosing a time that works for you and your child. You’re getting that assessment to know exactly where those learning gaps are. And then being able to work with a specialist that is going to help them either with reversals or their letter sizes or the placement of letters. So, that’s really how we can continue formal assessment in kindergarten on up. And then as they go through kindergarten, there’s going to be other formal assessments and also informal, just like we said before, about observation, how that can be an informal assessment to help in the classroom, too.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

That sounds super valuable, actually. But of course, part of the challenge is that these are two different, quote-unquote “systems”. So, then does that typically lay, that responsibility, with the families to try to bridge that gap between the pre-K program and the K-12 system?

BRETZ:

I definitely agree. Like, I think it is definitely… the parents are their child’s advocate. So, being able, if you… you’ll be getting, having that collaboration with a pre-K educator. And for the pre-K educator to be able to say, “Here is where I think your child needs more support in this area.” And for that parent to take that information and to be able to say, “Okay,” when they go into that kindergarten room to say to that teacher, “My child needs help and I think we need an evaluation,” they have to be an advocate for their child. And that’s where they’re going to start seeing some of those strategies and activities play out in the kindergarten classroom, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah. And I guess that also then just reiterates the importance of early-childhood educators informing parents about this and the importance of this, right?

BRETZ:

Exactly.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, like, I think a lot of parents are just unaware that this is even available or something they should be thinking about.

BRETZ:

Right. And I think parents and caregivers, they need to ask questions. They need to ask that pre-K educator about strategies that they can do at home. Giving them those activities that they can do at home to help support, whether it’s a multi-sensory activity that… just using Play-Doh and building letters or being able to read, like I said before, to your child. Those are things that are going to be really helpful when you have that collaboration between a pre-K educator and a parent.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, wonderful. That’s certainly an exciting vision to work towards, where parents are taking more responsibility and more ownership of being that advocate, like you said, between the early years and the school programs, because certainly that’s a challenge currently. And Christina, I understand Learning Without Tears is doing some work with assessment. Tell us a little bit more about what’s happening with regards to assessments at Learning Without Tears.

BRETZ:

Yeah, so we have some brand new assessments in our pre-K. And they’re called the Assessments to Guide Instruction, which I think is a perfect title because that’s really what we want to do in pre-K. We want to use these assessments to help guide our instruction. And so we have two different kinds of assessments: we have unit assessments and we have benchmark assessments.

So, the unit assessments, that’s used after we have taught a unit. And there are six units in our curriculum. And so after we’ve taught Unit one, we can administer that assessment to see if the children have mastered those skills in that first unit. And then if they haven’t, well, that’s going to guide our instruction to be able to use some activities, some strategies to help the children learn those concepts.

And then we also have the Benchmark Assessments, which is going to provide a snapshot of their skills during the year. And those Benchmark Assessments, hat’s what we’re doing at the beginning, the middle and the end of the year. So, those three times a year. And that’s covering language and literacy; that’s covering numbers in math; and then readiness and writing. So that we’re really focusing in on those skills to make sure children are ready for kindergarten.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, very cool. And for folks that are listening, where can they go to find some of this information?

BRETZ:

Yeah, so they can go to our website, the Learning Without Tears website. And it’s at www.LWTears.com. And that will give all that information there.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And Christina, before we wrap up, anything else you want to share with the audience about assessments or otherwise?

BRETZ:

Yeah, so I was just recently on, I was looking through one of the websites that I love, is NAEYC, which the stands for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. And that website is www.NAEYC.org. I was reading an article on that website that discussed how observations are so important.

And I guess I’ve talked about that today to really how important they are to assess and then to be able to adjust your teaching strategies and plan teaching based on what teachers have observed and what children have responded positively in the classroom. So, I thought that was just such a key article that really talked about the power of observation and how we’re able to look at what’s happening in the classroom and evaluate that classroom behavior and help children achieve optimal success in the classroom.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, so important. And I love how you’re approaching a lot of these from the perspective of the Why and the purpose behind it. It’s not just something we’re checking off a list to say we did it. We’re going into it knowing that we’re going to use the output from the assessments and the observations to do our planning and create the right programs and activities for the children we’re working with. So, it’s an excellent approach.

BRETZ:

Exactly. And looking at it in a developmental approach. Having that developmentally-based curriculum that is going to be appropriate for our young children is so key, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Absolutely. Christina, it’s been an absolute delight having you on the Preschool Podcast with us today. Thank you so much for joining us!

BRETZ:

Thank you, Ron. I’m so glad to be here. Thanks!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!