Fundamentals of authentic assessment

By Margarita Milenova, PhD, Program Quality Specialist

What does my child know? How much English does my preschooler understand? Is my child on the right path to be successful at school in a couple of years? How can I help at home?

These were some of the questions that were on my mind several years ago. I knew what my child was able to do at home, but I was not sure whether he was displaying the same skills and abilities at the child care center. As a parent, I sometimes felt like I was living in two parallel universes. In one of them, I told bedtime stories and asked about my child’s day in my native language, Bulgarian. In the other universe, encompassing my child’s life outside of our home, he played with other children and expressed curiosity about the world in English.

Margarita Milenova

Then came the first parent-teacher conference. The teachers showed me a portfolio of my child’s work and their notes on what he did and said. I was thrilled to learn about the progress he had made in language and math. I could see that the teachers had paid close attention to what my child was able to do. The information that they provided was based not on subjective opinions but on the ongoing assessment that was happening in the classroom. It was clear that the teachers were working hard to provide a great daily experience and plenty of learning opportunities for my child. As an educator, I was aware of the benefits of formative authentic assessment, and as a parent, I knew I was a partner in this shared process. In this blog post, I hope to answer some common questions that teachers, administrators, and parents may have about assessments.

What is authentic assessment?

Authentic assessment is an ongoing process of evaluating a child’s development. It also includes planning and implementing activities to support better outcomes for children. Authentic assessment happens in familiar settings, with familiar people, and it happens over time.

My favorite definition of authentic assessment comes from the book Basics of Assessment: A Primer for Early Childhood Educators by Deborah J. Leong, Elena Bodrova, and Oralie McAfee. The book’s authors explain that authentic assessment takes into account “the situation or context in which the child performs the task as well as what the child is asked to do.” Such an assessment requires that “children apply their knowledge and skills in a situation that is meaningful to them and is within the range of typical classroom activity.”

When using authentic assessment to decide where a child is in his or her development, an educator with knowledge of child development looks at how the child demonstrates skills or knowledge consistently in different settings. This can include motor skills, social-emotional skills, academic knowledge, and more. For example, is the child able to consistently and over time identify a small number of items without counting? Perhaps one week he or she points to two chairs in the dramatic play area while playing with a peer. The next week, he or she communicates while coloring that there are three crayons at the art table. The following week, the child communicates that he or she placed three forks at the lunch table while helping set up.

The educator can use different strategies to document these observations: writing anecdotal notes, taking photos, and/or making audio and video recordings. The educator is then able to assess the child’s development and complete the rating on paper or electronically.

What are the steps of authentic assessment?

First, familiar adults or caregivers observe a child’s behavior in a natural environment. For example, they may observe the child during daily activities in the classroom or on the playground. The next step is to document these observations by writing anecdotal notes about what the child did or said, taking video clips or audio recordings, and so on. Organizing the documentation helps educators know what skills and behaviors they observed and where they need more evidence. This way, educators can be intentional about further observation or ask colleagues, parents or guardians to collaborate on collecting more information.

When they have gathered enough information, it’s time to review and analyze the documentation for each child and evaluate where the child is in his or her development. The data is then compared against a set of standards. In Minnesota, we use the Early Childhood Indicators of Progress. Next, educators share information with families. Finally, based on their assessment data, they plan and implement changes in their teaching practices.

How do I choose an authentic assessment for my program?

There are various assessment instruments available to educators that help them measure children’s progress. An assessment instrument instructs educators on the type and quantity of data they should collect based on a child’s age. It also tells them how often they should collect those data. The instruments are based on a set of developmental norms that are founded in research.

Every state has its own early learning guidelines for preschoolers; most states are moving towards early learning guidelines that include children from birth to five years of age. These guidelines describe what to expect of children at a given age in a given developmental domain (gross motor, early literacy, approaches to learning, and so on.). These norms are foundational to authentic assessment, as they let adults know what can be considered typical development at a given age and what may not be typical. Many valid and reliable early childhood assessment tools have completed crosswalks with states’ early learning standards to make that part of assessment easier for early childhood professionals.

A valid and reliable assessment instrument gives educators valuable data that informs changes in their teaching practices. The words “valid” and “reliable” have a special meaning in this context.

  • A valid assessment measures what we are intending to measure.
  • A reliable assessment measures consistently even if different teachers are using the same procedure.

To choose the assessment that is right for your program, start with the purpose of the assessment. Is it going to be used for accountability and reporting? To communicate with families? To make changes in the classroom environment and interactions? Are there concerns about a child’s development?

When assessments are used in high-stakes policy decisions or for accountability, administrators and educators should check with the appropriate state agency for a list of approved assessments. For instance, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) oversees Parent Aware, a Quality Rating and Improvement System for child care providers. DHS offers a list of approved assessments from which child care providers can choose in order to participate in the Parent Aware ratings program. As another example, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) implemented the Kindergarten Entry Profile Initiative, a system by which Minnesota schools can assess kindergarteners’ knowledge and skills. MDE offers a list of approved assessments that schools can use in order to participate in the system.

Curriculum is another consideration. Some assessments are embedded in curricula, while others could be used with any curriculum. An example of the former is the Teaching Strategies Gold™ assessment that was created to be used specifically with the Creative Curriculum™. An example of the latter category is the Desired Results Developmental Profile (DRDP 2015), which is a widely-used formative assessment created by the California Department of Education to assess the development of all children. The DRDP 2015 can be used with English language learners and to assess children with and without disabilities. It can be used with any curriculum for reporting, program quality improvement, and making changes in instruction.

How can I expand my understanding of the assessment instrument my program chose?

For a deeper understanding of the instrument, educators need to attend a training provided by trainers certified by the assessment publisher. While educators don’t need to undergo certification to administer authentic assessment in a classroom, some assessment publishers do require trainers to be certified to train teachers and administrators. For example, I certified with WestEd to be an approved trainer on the DRDP 2015 and acquired a trainer certification for COR Advantage. Trainings provide educators with the opportunity to learn the requirements of the assessment tool, ask questions, and practice using the instrument.

Authentic assessment is an ongoing process. How do I find time to do it?

It might feel overwhelming when there are so many things happening throughout the day in any given classroom. Being intentional about collecting, organizing, and reviewing information can be helpful. Plan where and when you want to collect data during the day, knowing that you will not be able to collect all the data on all the children in one day. Or choose a few children to follow one day, a few more the next day, and so on.

Another way to enrich the process is inviting all team members who work with the children to share their perspectives. A speech therapist who comes into the classroom daily might have more observations to add to a child’s portfolio. A yoga teacher might contribute information about gross motor skills. Parents can share what is going on at home. Children can file their own drawings or writing samples, and family members can help organize daily notes.

How do I share assessment information with families?

Building strong relationships with families prior to sharing assessment findings is the foundation for having deep conversations about children’s strengths and areas of growth. Of course, COVID-19 presents logistical challenges to building these relationships. The next post in this series will address the unique challenges of authentic assessment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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