Q & A with Program Quality Specialist Margarita Milenova, PhD

Margarita Milenova, PhD, joined CEED as a program quality specialist in 2013. She works on early childhood program quality projects and trains early childhood professionals on the Desired Results Developmental Profile© (DRDP [2015]) and the COR Advantage® assessment tools. Milenova has special expertise in authentic assessment. In this Q & A, she talks about the advantages of different assessment tools and offers tips for early childhood professionals to use them effectively.

Margarita Milenova

How did you become interested in early childhood education?

Margarita Milenova: My interest in learning about young children was sparked during my senior year in high school in Bulgaria when I enrolled in the prep program for assistant teachers. This was a year-round program that focused on early childhood education and psychology, combining academic classes with an extended practicum in child care centers. 

This experience motivated me to continue my journey at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski, where I earned a master’s degree and a doctoral degree in early childhood education with a minor in special education. I was still curious to learn more and wanted to give back to the field, so I accepted a faculty position at the Department of Preschool and Elementary Education at Sofia University. After moving to the US, I had the opportunity to work as an early childhood teacher, as well as a director and teacher at the Bulgarian School in Minnesota supporting bilingual children and their families. These experiences across cultures were evidence of the fundamental importance of high-quality early childhood education.

Your work involves training early childhood educators to use the DRDP (2015)and COR Advantage® assessment tools. Can you describe how these tools work?

Authentic formative assessments help educators determine where each child is developmentally, so they can plan enriching learning opportunities for children, make changes in the physical environment, and provide the necessary support. Assessments like the DRDP (2015) and COR Advantage® provide a great way to communicate with families about children’s development and can also be used for accountability purposes. 

The assessment tools that I train educators to use are both reliable and valid authentic assessments. They look at all the important areas of child development. The assessments unfold as cycles of observation, documentation of behaviors and skills, reflection on the collected data, planning, and implementing. These steps are performed by caregivers who are familiar with the children. They’re performed in natural settings while children play and interact with peers or explore independently. These are the hallmarks of “authentic” assessments. It’s important to highlight that these are not test-like assessments where children are invited to do specific tasks or choose the correct answer.

What advice on using assessment tools such as the DRDP (2015) and the COR Advantage® do you have for early childhood professionals?

One important piece of information for Minnesota-based caregivers is that DRDP (2015) and COR Advantage® are on the list of approved assessments for Parent Aware, which is Minnesota’s voluntary quality rating and improvement system for early childhood programs. Both assessments may also be used by participants in the Kindergarten Entry Profile Initiative, which is a voluntary program offered by the Minnesota Department of Education. Another advantage of these assessments is that they are strengths-based and grounded in research. That means the focus is on what children can do, not on what they cannot do. I also like to emphasize that valid authentic assessments can yield very useful information. When programs use them as intended, teachers and caregivers can collect data that will help them make well-informed decisions about supporting children.

Sometimes it might look overwhelming to do all the different steps that authentic assessments call for (i.e., observe in various settings, write notes, snap photos, take videos, fill in forms and records, etc.). Working on it as a team with other caregivers can help make it more manageable. In fact, it’s actually preferable to have those observations in different settings—at the playground, at the sand table, in the dramatic play area, etc.—so you can be confident that a child is at a particular developmental level. 

Another tip is using technology to store and organize data collected through observation. There are some free apps available to make this easier for teachers. For instance, the DRDP Portfolio app and the Teaching Strategies® GOLD® app allow educators to save and quickly review the evidence they have collected. They can determine where a child is developmentally and share data with teachers and administrators, special education teachers, and families, all within these apps.

As someone who speaks more than one language, what are your thoughts about assessment for children who are bilingual or speak a different language at home from the one that is spoken in their early childhood program?

I believe that early childhood educators are very important partners for parents when we think about language development and how to support young children. When educators take the time to find out what language is spoken in the child’s home, it can really make a difference in relationship-building and instructional strategies. A child speaking a language other than English at home sometimes might appear to be falling behind their monolingual peers. In reality, however, this child might be able to fully participate in pretend play, with elaborate exchanges with a friend speaking Bulgarian or Tagalog, for instance. It’s important to have an open mind and avoid the assumption that having trouble expressing oneself in English equates to a lack of knowledge or understanding of concepts. 

Authentic assessments can help educators take a holistic look at a child’s language development. As just one example, DRDP (2015) has a set of four English language development measures. These measures look at how a child is progressing in English. Crucially, however, each of these measures also takes into account the child’s development in their home language. The rest of the DRDP (2015) assessment can be completed based on a child’s use of their home language or based on alternative ways of communicating. 

No matter which assessment tool an educator is using, it can be really helpful to work with an interpreter, a cultural liaison, and a child’s parents when assessing multilingual children. They can help educators gain a better understanding of where the child is developmentally. It is not always easy to find interpreters and cultural liaisons, but connecting with cultural institutions representing different communities can be an option.

What do you like to do in your free time?

Living in Minnesota has given me plenty of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors at a level that is new for me! I enjoy paddle boarding in the summer and cross-country skiing during the snowy months.

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