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High-Quality Early Childhood Assessment: Learning From States’ Use of Kindergarten Entry Assessments

Woman with a clipboard observing a young girl in a school setting

High-quality early childhood programs aim to foster children’s learning through developmentally appropriate practices and environments. Early childhood assessments, when well designed and well implemented, can support developmentally appropriate learning by providing information to guide instruction and support children's development. As early childhood programs are becoming part of many state education systems, educators and policymakers are seeking strong early childhood assessment systems that begin at or before preschool and can carry through the early elementary years in an aligned system.

Many states and districts begin assessing children’s skills and knowledge with a kindergarten entry assessment (KEA). KEAs, administered in the early weeks of kindergarten, provide a snapshot of individual children’s development. When continuing into the elementary grades, a KEA can provide educators and policymakers with an understanding of how children are progressing over time. Having a high-quality tool for understanding children’s ongoing development, including social-emotional development, is even more important with the COVID-19 crisis, which has delayed or interrupted formal learning and peer interactions for many young children.

Early childhood assessments, when well designed and well implemented, can support developmentally appropriate learning by providing information to guide instruction and support children's development.

As of 2021, 38 states have a KEA—more than a fivefold increase in 10 years. The expansion was spurred by federal policy that required states receiving Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge grant funds to implement statewide KEAs. As KEAs have become more common, they have been subject to several kinds of controversy. Assessments that are highly scripted, inauthentic, or too long can be inappropriate for young children and unfeasible for teachers. Assessments that are narrowly focused on discrete skills and exclude essential developmental domains can limit early childhood curriculum and foster inappropriate teaching strategies. Bias in assessment design or in high-stakes implementation practices can lead to deficit perspectives of certain children, such as those from diverse cultural or linguistic backgrounds or those with special needs.

This report has examined prior research on assessing young children, scanned practices across states and districts, and highlighted promising examples to illuminate how KEAs can support equitable learning. It provides insights into how to choose high-quality assessments, the implications of different assessment choices, and how to effectively use KEAs as part of strong statewide early learning assessment systems.

Understanding High-Quality Kindergarten Entry Assessments

A high-quality KEA has content that measures essential domains of child development in ways that are appropriate and culturally relevant and is part of a system of ongoing formative assessment. High-quality KEA content aligns with developmentally appropriate kindergarten standards, curricula, and instruction; is based on a learning progression; provides information that is relevant and sufficiently detailed to guide instruction; connects to formative assessment across p–3; and is inclusive of all children regardless of their socioeconomic, cultural, or linguistic backgrounds. An assessment that measures only discrete reading or numeracy skills is not appropriate as a KEA.

A high-quality KEA has administration procedures that are fair for all children and practical for teachers. High quality early childhood assessments include children of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds and varying abilities; take place in a natural and familiar setting; and are accompanied by robust professional development and resources that support teachers in administering the tool and using the data. A traditional assessment that requires young children to stay seated and engaged for long periods of time is inappropriate.

A high-quality KEA yields results that are valid for all children being assessed. High-quality KEAs document how children demonstrate skills and competencies in authentic situations; are backed by rigorous research that includes children from diverse backgrounds; and align with how the data are used, including informing instruction. Assessments that are highly contrived may not accurately capture the full range of children’s skills and competencies.

Policy Recommendations

States and districts can do the following to ensure that KEAs and other early childhood assessments support children’s learning and development.

Choose high-quality, developmentally appropriate assessments. What is measured—and how—can drive the way children are understood and taught. States should therefore:

  • assess key domains of child development—including social-emotional development, cognitive development, language and literacy development, mathematical and scientific reasoning, and physical development—in ways that are sufficiently detailed to inform instruction;
  • measure learning in ways that are authentic and culturally and linguistically appropriate; that include observation of children in regular activities and real-world performance tasks; and that include children from diverse cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and with varying abilities;
  • assess children’s progress over time, through a continuum of assessments from preschool to the early grades, to provide educators with a clear road map for children’s development; and
  • use assessments that yield valid and reliable results for all students and for their intended purposes.

Build assessment systems that inform instruction and support family engagement. With adequate support, assessments can foster teachers’ and families’ understanding of child development and developmentally appropriate practice. States and districts can:

  • offer ongoing professional development for both conducting the assessments and using results to inform teaching;
  • give educators the time and resources they need to assess and to reflect on the results;
  • make data systems accessible and easy to use; and
  • engage families in assessments by sharing information and planning together.

Use assessment data to strengthen early learning systems—and be wary of misuse. Assessments can be used to inform policy as well as instruction, but inappropriate uses of data can cause harm. States should:

  • share aggregated assessment results across grade levels and with key stakeholders, such as preschool educators and early learning programs, district leaders, policymakers at the local and state levels, and community advocates;
  • use data to identify systemic needs for access and quality improvements, including investments in curriculum development and educator professional development; and
  • avoid using KEAs to evaluate individual preschool providers or restrict children’s access to kindergarten.

Support state-level implementation and continuous improvement. States can take action to support a strong launch and continuously improve their KEAs. For example, states can:

  • include early childhood educators in developing or selecting the KEA and multiple stakeholders in communicating annual KEA data to policymakers, district leaders, advocates, and the public;
  • fund state and regional KEA staff to support assessment implementation by providing coordination and administrative services, responsive professional development and coaching, and program review and resources; and
  • continuously assess and improve KEA implementation through ongoing research on the extent to which the KEA informs instruction and is useful for educators and families.

High-Quality Early Childhood Assessment: Learning From States’ Use of Kindergarten Entry Assessments by Cathy Yun, Hanna Melnick, and Marjorie Wechsler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation. Core operating support for LPI is also provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.

Updated August 23, 2021. Revisions are noted here.