Skip to main content

To Provide High-Quality Early Learning, California Must Invest in Its Early Learning Assessment System

Educating the Whole Child Blog series art: California's Early Learning Assessment System by Cathy Yun

This post is part of LPI's Educating the Whole Child blog series, which explores research, policy, and practices to support students' healthy growth and development.

The American Families Plan, proposed by President Biden in his national address on April 28, includes a game-changing $200 billion investment that would provide access to high-quality preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. These proposed federal investments come at a time when both the governor and the legislature in California have signaled their intentions to expand the state’s early childhood infrastructure. To capitalize on these much-needed resources, it will be important for California to invest in a robust early learning assessment system.

High-quality early childhood experiences, coupled with good nutrition and health care, can help close gaps before children enter formal schooling. Yet by the time they start kindergarten, young children in the United States have already experienced systemic inequities, including varying levels of access to nutritious meals, health care, and home learning experiences. These different circumstances take the form of early and ongoing opportunity gaps, which translate into achievement gaps in later grades. In California, the disparities between the opportunities afforded young children from low-income backgrounds and their peers from higher-income families are even greater than the national average.

High-quality early childhood experiences depend on thoughtful teachers guided by ongoing formative assessments that help them offer the right learning opportunities at the right time for each individual child. Since every child develops in their own way, high-quality assessments enable teachers to tailor instruction to reinforce children’s strengths and support individualized growth.

A high-quality early childhood assessment system that is aligned with curriculum and instruction from preschool to the primary grades can support ongoing whole child development across multiple domains and years, providing consistency and continuity as children and families transition from preschool into kindergarten and grade school. In addition, aggregated assessment data can be used to identify system-level patterns, strengths, and gaps that can inform strategic investments in early childhood and elementary programs and initiatives.

Having a common tool for understanding children’s development is made even more important by the COVID-19 crisis, which has delayed or interrupted formal learning for many young children. With a high-quality assessment, teachers can thoughtfully assess the strengths and needs of students as they enroll, including their social-emotional development.

Having a common tool for understanding children’s development is made even more important by the COVID-19 crisis, which has delayed or interrupted formal learning for many young children.

Some states are well positioned to meet these new and ongoing assessment needs. California uses the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP) in early childhood classrooms throughout the state. With authentic assessment tools like the DRDP, teachers can monitor and support children’s dynamic development—not through standardized testing, but by observing children as they engage in age-appropriate activities. For example, they can document growth in a child’s natural and authentic language use, peer interactions, physical agility, problem-solving, and emotional regulation against developmentally appropriate milestones and indicators.

The value of this tool is seen in Tulare City School District, which has extended its use of the DRDP from preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds to early elementary grades as a tool for promoting child-centered teaching. Jennifer Marroquin, Director of Early Childhood Education in Tulare City School District, explained that changing assessments was key to shifting instructional practice and aligning curriculum across grade levels: “We were making this whole shift in a developmental approach to education, [so] we couldn’t keep using the same assessments that we were doing in the yes/no, drill and kill format. We needed to change the assessment to match the instruction.” Through in-depth professional development, teachers learn how to collect DRDP evidence with the help of instructional aides, and they practice using actual evidence from a DRDP assessment to calibrate their ratings and identify next steps for instruction.

As evidenced by Tulare City, the effectiveness of early childhood assessments depends upon ongoing investment in professional training, as well as appropriate use of the data to improve supports and instruction from the level of the individual child to the classroom, program, district, county, and state.

The Benefits of a Statewide Investment

A common and fully supported statewide developmental assessment tool has the advantage of providing comparable data across communities over time as students move from preschool into kindergarten. With comparable data, local and state leaders can better understand and respond with systemic solutions to student needs—and teachers can gain a longer-term perspective on student development.

For example, Illinois has invested in a streamlined version of the DRDP to assess all kindergarteners: the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS). All kindergarten teachers administer the same 14-item observational assessment within the first 40 days of school. State results are shared on the Illinois Report Card website, with visualizations for data by developmental area and student ethnicity to guide investments. The state also provides professional learning supports, including state-funded coaching and an annual conference, to help districts use assessment results to inform instruction. Some districts, such as Elgin U-46, use longer, customized forms of the assessment and assess children in the middle of the year and at the end to gauge their progress over time. Elgin uses the DRDP for preschool and provides professional development on the assessment to 1st-grade teachers as well, building a common understanding of child development across the early learning continuum.

California might take a similar approach, using the DRDP to inform strategic investment in early childhood, from preschool through kindergarten and primary grades. In doing so, the state might consider a streamlined tool like Illinois uses in kindergarten and beyond. It might also add short performance tasks to supplement teacher observations, as some other states have done.  

Having a systems-level perspective of children’s development is particularly important as California expands preschool and TK. A common developmental assessment, such as the DRDP, provides an opportunity to align quality assessment and teaching practices across different settings, so that children are getting the high-quality experiences that they need and deserve, regardless of the setting. For example, the California Department of Education has partnered with WestEd to begin exploring whether the state’s preschool quality rating system is predictive of children’s developmental growth on the DRDP over the preschool year.

This is especially important as many children move between state preschool, TK, and private early childhood care. For example, as a child advances to elementary school, their teacher—regardless of the school district—can refer to preschool assessment data to understand the child’s overall developmental progress and identify strengths or areas that need extra support. Rather than providing the same instruction for all children, teachers can flexibly group children and offer individualized instruction tailored to their developmental needs. 

Components of a High-Quality Early Childhood Assessment

Based on child-development research, high-quality early childhood assessments include the following key components:

  • Observations of children’s behaviors during typical activities by teachers and family members.
  • Detailed developmental progressions with explicit behavior indicators. These indicators act as milestones that teachers can look for to determine where children’s competencies fall on the continuum of development for that particular skill.
  • Progressions for all the essential developmental domains, including social-emotional, cognitive, language and literacy, mathematical and scientific, and physical development.
  • The ability for children to demonstrate their competencies in multiple languages and ways, respecting the strengths of children who are dual-language learners and those with special needs.

Getting the Most Out of an Early Childhood Assessment

California has already invested significantly in the DRDP, and districts like Tulare are reaping the benefits. With further targeted investments, the state’s early childhood classrooms and system could reap fuller rewards. Four key investments include:

  1. Investing in professional development and coaching: Investments in coaching can support strategic use of an assessment tool. Coaches can help teachers integrate formative assessments more seamlessly into their daily teaching and use evidence to foster individual children’s growth with tailored instruction.
  2. Expanding implementation to TK and kindergarten classrooms: Linking common assessment data from early learning through kindergarten can provide a more comprehensive understanding of both individual children’s learning and the early childhood care and education system as a whole. Illinois, for example, has been able to use KIDS data from a majority of its kindergarten classrooms to promote increased investments in early childhood.
  3. Sponsoring research for ongoing improvement of the assessments and the system: Continuous monitoring of how teachers and families use assessment data can inform ongoing refinement of the tool. In addition, ongoing research that examines which aspects of preschool best support student learning gains can inform tool and system improvements. Cycles of research and improvement can help streamline the tool to focus on essential skills and competencies, as Illinois has done.
  4. Improving the data system for teachers and state leaders: Finally, data is useful only if it is easily available when and where educators and policymakers need it. A user-friendly data system that links districts and counties at the state level and simplifies entering, exploring, reporting, and interpreting data would enable California to make the most of a statewide assessment.

Next Steps

California is already ahead of many other states by having a high-quality statewide early childhood assessment tool. The state can strategically build on prior investments and educators’ existing experiences and familiarity with the DRDP. With preschool expansion imminent, California should take action to realize the full potential of using the DRDP as the foundation for cohesive high-quality early childhood learning opportunities for all children.