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Zhang, Q. (2015). Advocating for a comprehensive approach to assessment in New Zealand early childhood education. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 18, 67 - 79.
Original Position Paper
Advocating for a comprehensive approach to assessment in New Zealand early childhood education
The Learning Story approach to assessing and reporting children’s learning is the dominant approach to assessment in New Zealand early childhood education largely due to endorsement by the Ministry Education and advocacy by academics and educational authorities. This article argues that regardless of the appeal of Learning Stories this approach should not be promoted as the only or best assessment practice. Educators, parents and children should be provided with choices, and a more multi-method or comprehensive approach taken to assessment. Two key rationales for a comprehensive approach presented in this paper are: (1) assessment has multiple purposes that require multiple tools rather than a one-size-fits-all approach; and (2) the effectiveness of assessment tools is contextually determined.
Key words: Assessment; Learning Stories; multi-method; comprehensive approach.
Assessment in early childhood education is important for raising children’s learning outcomes. Internationally, there is debate and no consensus on what assessment practices constitute ‘best practices’; but in NZ over the past ten years, Learning Stories has gained dominancy largely due to endorsement by the Ministry of Education and advocacy by academics and educational authorities. The publication and circulation of Assessment for Learning: Early Childhood Exemplars, a series of books featuring sample Learning Stories (Ministry of Education, 2004, 2007, 2009), along with funded nation-wide professional development for teachers, helped to secure the place of Learning Story methodology in NZ early childhood education. Assessment in early childhood education is generally seen to mean Learning Stories and the possibility is not considered that there exist other methods that could be used instead of or in conjunction with Learning Stories. This article argues that, regardless of the appeal of Learning Story methodology, this approach should not dominate or monopolise the early childhood education assessment practices, as is the case currently in New Zealand.
Conceptualising assessment in early childhood settings
Assessment is conceptually complex and serves multiple purposes. Drummond (1993) defined assessment as “the ways in which, in our everyday practice, we observe children’s learning, strive to understand it, and then put our understanding to good use” (p. 13). This definition is augmented by Brassard and Boehm’s (2007) statement that, “[t]he term preschool assessment covers a broad range of procedures used to gather information relevant to understanding the functioning of young children” (p. 2). For McLachlan, Fleer, and Edwards (2013), assessment is “the range of methods used by teachers to monitor whether children are achieving learning aims and objectives and gaining new knowledge of content and subject matter” (p. 114). These perspectives reflect the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia:
Assessment for children’s learning refers to the process of gathering and analysing information as evidence about what children know, can do and understand…Educators use a variety of strategies to collect, document, organise, synthesise and interpret the information that they gather to assess children’s learning…[assessment also] enables educators in partnership with families, children and other professionals to: plan effectively for children’s current and future learning, communicate about children’s learning and progress, determine the extent to which all children are progressing toward realising learning outcomes, identify children who may need additional support, evaluate the effectiveness of learning opportunities, environments and experiences (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR], 2009, p. 17).
These quite diverse definitions contend that assessment contains a range of ways, procedures, strategies, or methods. As stated in NZ’s early childhood curriculum document, Te Whāriki, “the purpose of assessment is to give useful information about children’s learning and development to the adults providing the programme and to children and their families” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 29). In juxtaposition with this, a statement by National Association for Education of Young Children [NAEYC] (2009) proclaims three purposes of assessment: making sound decisions about teaching and learning; identifying significant concerns that may require focused intervention for individual children; and helping programmes improve their educational and developmental interventions. These dominant discourses reflect how early childhood education assessment has multiple purposes including gauging children’s progress in learning, identifying children who need additional support, and evaluating the programme. To fulfil these purposes, a range of assessment tools are needed.
What constitutes ‘good’ assessment? According to Te Whāriki, good assessment “requires adults to observe changes in children’s behaviour and learning and to link these to curriculum goals…should always focus on individual children over a period of time and avoid making comparisons between children” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 29). The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia states that good assessment uses “appropriate ways to collect rich and meaningful information that depicts children’s learning in context, describes their progress and identifies their strengths, skills and understandings” (DEEWR, 2009, p. 17). NAEYC’s (2009) position statement requires assessment to be ethical, appropriate, valid, and reliable. The position statement specifies that assessment should be age appropriate; evidence should be gathered from realistic settings and situations; multiple sources of evidence should be gathered over time; and norm-referenced tests should be limited. According to Neisworth and Bagnato (2004), the professional standards of assessment based on Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) in the US early childhood settings are: utility (usefulness for intervention), acceptability (social worth and agreement), authenticity (natural methods and contexts), equity (adaptable for special needs), sensitivity (fine measurement gradations), convergence (synthesis of ecological data), collaboration (parent-professional teamwork), and congruence (special design/field-validation/evidence base). Notably, the DAP-based assessment standards have incorporated elements of sociocultural perspective such as authenticity, equity, and collaboration.
Early education assessment practice in international contexts
Internationally, it is a tradition that conventional, norm-referenced assessments are used to compare the performance of one child to that of other children who share similar characteristics (Gullo, 2013). For many years, assessment in early childhood settings in the US had been dominated by standardised testing practices (Neisworth & Bagnato, 2004). Meanwhile, the formal, standardised testing system has been criticised for a number of reasons, for example, its monocultural and ethnocentric perspective (Aldwinckle, 2001) and its being ‘decontextualized from children’s natural, everyday routines’ (Bagnato, 2007, p. 19). It is even contended that “conventional testing must be abandoned within the early childhood fields for every purpose” (Neisworth & Bagnato, 2004, p. 199; Bagnato, 2007, p. 19).
As an alternative to formal, standardised assessments, the US researchers have advocated for ‘authentic assessments’ which refer to “the systematic recording of developmental observations over time by familiar and knowledgeable caregivers about the naturally occurring competencies of young children in daily routines” (Bagnato, 2007, p. 27). It is perceived by some that, in today’s US early childhood settings, authentic assessment has been “recognized officially as best practice by the major professional organizations” (Bagnato, Goins, Pretti-Frontczak, & Neisworth, 2014, p. 1). Authentic assessment is a key feature of the High/Scope child assessment which is characteristic of Child Observation Record (COR). COR provides systematic assessment of young children's knowledge and abilities in various areas of development. There is criticism that the High/Scope curriculum content is too difficult and/or too time-consuming for practitioners to use and understand (Epstein, Johnson, & Lafferty (2011), and it is known that High/Scope “takes this criticism seriously as it wants to make the approach accessible to many populations in different countries and settings” (Epstein, et al., p. 113). Authentic assessment is also indicative of Head Start. “Because of the breadth of the Head Start Outcomes Framework, it is unlikely that any published assessment instrument will align perfectly with the Framework” (Grisham-Brown, Hallam, & Brookshire, 2006, p. 46), and therefore, authentic assessment oriented instruments are developed or chosen, for example, Creative Curriculum, Work Sampling System and High/Scope Child Observation Record (Grisham-Brown, et al., 2006) for the Head Start programmes.
Despite the prevailing perception and sentiment among academics in the US that the conventional, standardised assessments ‘must be abandoned’ (Bagnato, 2007), the reality presents a different picture. A recent US national survey revealed that a wide range of both standardised and non-standardised tools were used to assess children’s development (Banerjee & Luckner, 2013). A recent official document states “standardised assessments that are normed or are based on specific criteria tend to be used to evaluate programs because they allow for a fair comparison among individual or groups of children” (Schilder & Carolan, 2014, p. 2). According to the document, fifteen Pre-K standardised assessments are being most commonly used in different US States. Meanwhile, researchers have identified a number of problems facing authentic assessments, for example, it is argued that teachers’ personal values, experiences, and attitudes influence their judgment about what the work in the portfolio actually means, what behaviours to observe, or what questions to ask in an interview, which limits the validity of the assessment (Macy, Bricker, & Squires, 2005).
The Reggio Emilia approach features children’s construction of learning through inquiry and expressive language and documentation. Documentation consists of ‘traces of learning’ which may be used as a basis to reveal a child’s competences and learning (Gandini, 2011). According to Rinaldi (2014), documentation is a tool of observation and interpretation. In the process of learning through documentation, teachers become aware of the learning and its value and assess it. In producing the documentation, educators make the element of value visible and sharable. From the documentation, children can understand not only their processes but what teachers value as meaningful for their learning processes. In this way, assessment becomes more democratic. Rinaldi contended that teachers “cannot document without assessing” (p. 4).
Documentation in the Reggio Emilia approach is also known as ‘pedagogical documentation’ and this has become one of the most embraced assessment approaches worldwide. The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia highlights the importance of ‘documenting’ in assessment (DEEWR, 2009). In essence, Learning Stories are one of the many derivatives or variants of pedagogical documentation. As a formative assessment strategy, pedagogical documentation has the potential to develop children’s metacognition, contribute to teachers’ planning and help parents gain a better understanding of their child’s learning processes. However, like any other assessment tools, pedagogical documentation has its problems. Some of the problems include: reliance on single experience (Touhill, 2012), neglect of something important while being busy documenting (Basford & Bath, 2014), documentation being prioritised and educators focusing on doing the document rather than doing the doing (Miller, 2014), and use of goal-oriented strategy and mainly documenting children’s achievements (Emilson & Samuelsson, 2014). Further, as Gandini (2011) acknowledged, there is “a widespread…view that the Reggio approach is incompatible with assessments of children’s progress” (p. 79).
The DAP-based authentic assessment and the Reggio Emilia approach-based pedagogical documentation are currently two of the most influential assessment models in early childhood settings worldwide, and both have been problematised by researchers. It is logical that, as one type of pedagogical documentation, Learning Stories are ‘problematic’ in terms of fulfilling multiple purposes of an assessment.
Learning Stories: New Zealand’s dilemma
A Learning Story is a documented account (through narrative and annotated photos) of a child’s learning event. It is a particular form of documented and structured observations (Carr, 2001). Learning Stories also “track children’s strengths and interests” (Cowie & Carr, 2003, p. 97). Carr and Lee (2012) argue that by making the connection between sociocultural approaches to pedagogy and assessment and narrative inquiry, Learning Stories can construct learner identities in early childhood education programmes.
The Learning Stories approach to assessment has swiftly been acclaimed as an innovative, transformative, and effective approach by many academics both locally and internationally (e.g., Hatherly, 2006; Nyland & Alfayez, 2012). The New Zealand government supported professional development for teachers and the funding of resources to ensure that child assessment was taking place in early childhood education, and that Learning Stories was the approach adopted by teachers (Education Review Office, 2007). Learning Stories quickly came to be used as the method by which to assess and plan for children’s learning throughout New Zealand (Carr, Hatherly, Lee, & Ramsey, 2003). A national survey conducted by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research in 2008 revealed that 94% of ECE teachers used Learning Stories as their main assessment method (Mitchell, 2008), and a more recent, small scale survey revealed that 80% of teachers used Learning Stories as their main assessment tool (Loggenber, 2011).
In parallel with the wide-sweeping movement of Learning Stories across New Zealand, concerns have also been voiced about the effectiveness of Learning Stories. In particular, the concerns have been about: validity, lack of collegial perspectives, limited value for different contexts, lack of capacity to show change in children’s learning over time, and not targeting the assessment of children’s language and literacy (Blaiklock, 2008, 2011).
A report by the Education Review Office in 2007 somewhat supports such concerns. ERO found that in about one-third of early childhood services, policies and structures for assessment through Learning Stories were not working well, and assessment practices did not reflect the four principles of Te Whāriki. Teachers at half the services needed to improve their reflection of children’s learning and development in assessment, the use of assessment to inform learning, and the contribution of assessment information to ongoing self-review. In Loggenber’s (2011) study, teachers reported that Learning Stories were time-consuming and overlooked the obstacles learners may experience.
My contention is that the Learning Stories approach has been so thoroughly promoted as the best assessment practice in New Zealand that it has become unusually difficult for those in the early childhood sector to stop, think, and allow for any kind of adaptation to the approach. The dilemma is that while early childhood education professionals are aware that the Learning Stories approach has some inadequacies and limitations they are reluctant to or perhaps feel they will not be supported to include or use other methods of assessment.
What next? A comprehensive approach
Regardless of the many strengths of Learning Story methodology, Learning Stories alone are not adequate. As previously argued, early childhood education assessment should be carried out in a range of ways and should not rely on one single method. Hazard’s (2011) remark well illustrated such a stance: “Are Learning Stories the only way to observe and document? No! ... there are other ways to remember and record important moments and events … they are neither the only nor possibly the best method of recording” (p. 15).
Early childhood education assessment needs to serve multiple purposes, including special and specific purposes. Learning Stories do not seem to be as effective as some specially designed assessment tools in assisting educators to make informed decisions that help children become ready for school (Geoffroy et al., 2010). Learning Stories cannot replace the skill-based assessment practices in early intervention (Gredler, 2000; Cullen, 2002; Williamson, Cullen & Lepper, 2006). Another example is where trained educators use established tools to identify and support an exceptionally gifted child, a situation in which Learning Stories do not necessarily work well. Margrain (2011) explored some of the roles that Learning Stories play in supporting gifted children including “exemplifying characteristics of giftedness, [and] particular learning dispositions” (p. 3). Despite her intention to promote Learning Stories as an alternative to psychometric tests, Margrain acknowledged that Learning Stories particularly focus on “non-academic aspects of curriculum” (p. 10) which is obviously inadequate for ‘proving’ giftedness. Proposing an alignment of early childhood education and early intervention, Caulcutt and Paki (2011) stated, “While we would not advocate losing criterion-based assessment, we would certainly argue a case for the presence of some other formative assessment practices somewhere in documentation and delivery…the [Learning Stories] approach does not have the adequate measurement competencies required by the Ministry of Education to be deemed a formal assessment tool [in early intervention]” (p. 39).
Having adequate assessment tools in place for use in different situations is congruent with the sociocultural perspective which embraces diversity, inclusion and social justice. The sociocultural perspective recognises children’s right to an optimal level of quality education. The inclusive term ‘exceptional children’ refers to children with learning and/or behaviour problems, children with physical disabilities or sensory impairments, and children who are intellectually gifted or have a special talent. In my opinion, the capacity of Learning Stories to identify and support these children is dubious.
Regardless of its strengths or weaknesses, DAP’s capability of self-correction, adaptation, and growth is commendable. To overcome its limitations, the DAP approach incorporates sociocultural elements into its assessment standards, as above mentioned, and redefines ‘developmentally appropriate’ to include not only ‘age appropriate’, but also ‘individually appropriate’ and ‘culturally appropriate’ (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). The DAP approach aims for “a comprehensive and balanced assessment system that meets the need for accountability while respecting the well-being and development of young children” (Epstein, Schweinhart, DeBruin-Parecki, & Robin, 2004, p. 10). Specifically, its assessment system “can include testing, provided it measures applicable knowledge and skills in a safe and child-affirming situation. It can also include informal assessments, provided they too meet psychometric standards of reliability and validity” (Epstein, et al., 2004, p. 10). In a sense, the DAP approach has adapted its original position and become inclusive of some of the key principles inherent in the sociocultural perspective. Similar adaptations, rooted in sociocultural perspective, have not occurred to early childhood education assessment in New Zealand.
In the best interests of the child, we should cross the boundary between the various philosophical perspectives, and be open to all choices that may create optimal opportunities for the child. It is true that different philosophical perspectives are often competing and academics tend to fight for their chosen perspective, nevertheless, early childhood education assessment should not be tightly bound to any one philosophical perspective. Children, families and teachers are entitled to experience the most favourable assessment practices and opportunities. For example, the DAP practice and the sociocultural perspective should be introduced to parents as well as early childhood practitioners as complementary rather than competing approaches, and they should not be considered to be incompatible or irreconcilable.
Quoting the teachers whom she interviewed on their perception of Learning Stories, Loggenberg (2011) wrote: “Assessment is often seen as Learning Stories, which I do not see as adequate…It is worrying that Learning Stories are often the only assessment tool used…Teachers should be taught a more comprehensive selection of tools” (p. 45). I fully agree with Loggenberg. It is time for us to stop seeing Learning Stories as the only assessment choice and start seeing this approach as one of many assessment tools. In other words, it is time to take a comprehensive approach to assessment.
Taking a comprehensive approach to early childhood assessment is not about judging which tool is the best or most effective since there is no such thing as ‘the best tool’. Whether an assessment tool is effective and useful is largely dependent on specific variables such as who uses the tool, for whom the tool is used for, and when/how the tool is used.
In conclusion, it is counterproductive to debate the effectiveness of Learning Stories, instead, there needs to be debate on whether New Zealand should stick to this one particular tool of assessment - Learning Stories. Early childhood education is not the fashion industry, and no assessment tools will become ‘out-dated’ simply because they are not something new. To effectively assess children’s learning, parents and teachers in New Zealand should be supported to embrace the range of assessment tools that are available, and that includes Learning Stories along with DAP-based assessment and many other methods, because, as I have argued, there is no one-size-fits-all tool of assessment in the early years. Ten years ago, Epstein and colleagues wrote, “Developing and implementing a balanced approach to assessment is not an easy or inexpensive undertaking. But because we value our children and respect those charged with their education, it is an investment worth making” (Epstein, et al., 2004, p. 10). The same can be said of the value and significance of the efforts to develop and implement a comprehensive approach to preschool assessment in New Zealand.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Qilong Zhang is a senior lecturer in early childhood teaching at Waiariki Institute of Technology, New Zealand. Qilong’s teaching areas include professional practice, professional practitioner as a researcher, and legislation in a professional context. His current research interests include parental involvement, parent-teacher partnership, children’s agency, emergent literacy, and preschool assessment.
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