Guide to Assessing Young Children in Preschool: Should We Assess?

Guide to Assessing Young Children in Preschool:  Should We Assess?
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Controversy Surrounding Preschool Children Assessment

Assessing young children in preschool remains a very controversial topic due to a variety of factors. The misuse of assessment in the past, for example, can not be overlooked. The use of pen and paper testing has left a legacy of misconception and misunderstanding of the term “assessment”, which remains for some, associated to stress and pejorative labeling, and which highlights differences while not always being reliable.

Moreover, assessing preschool children is particularly difficult in comparison to assessing other age groups. Their short attention span, their likely distractibility, their inconsistent performance in different environments, and when strangers are present etc, are bound to impact on their behavior and attitude to “doing” and potentially learning (Vacc & Ritter, 1995; Mc Cauley, 2004). Formal assessment conditions are prone to sometimes give a distorted picture of children’s real abilities.

Avoiding Misconception and Misunderstanding of Assessment

Much research has been done in the field of assessing young children in preschool (or in other early years settings), and different types of assessment purposes and methods have been rightly distinguished. Two essential conditions prior to assessing should be fulfilled: Assessment methods should be mindful of children’s developmental stage, and assessment should be carried out only if, and when, it is known to be beneficial to the children assessed (Shepard, 1994).

Understanding Assessment and Why We Assess Young Children?

Assessment is a complex concept which can take diverse forms. Not all forms of assessment are universally suitable for all. The most important form applicable, and suitable to an early years setting, consists of formal observations in informal or normal classroom settings, accompanied by note takings and further record keeping.

Justifying our endeavor to assess preschool children has become necessary not only for accountability reasons, but also because it helps us define our focus regarding the aims of assessment, and guides us on the means and ways to carry out assessment appropriately and efficiently. The NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) has identified three good reasons to assess young children: planning for teaching and keeping parents informed of their child’s progress; detecting potential developmental problems or special needs; and evaluating programs and pedagogy (Shepard, 1994).

In that light, assessing young children in preschool is legitimate, and even potentially recommended as prone to bring about positive outcomes linked to our understanding of children’s development and learning. Accordingly, appropriate planning and target setting can be done, while teaching strategies and pedagogical adjustments be made as necessary.

What to Assess?

Assessing young children in preschool cannot be done in a purely academic manner, as it is the case with school children or young adults. A wide range of skills occurring naturally in early years settings may be subject to assessment such as, social interactions, perseverance, interest, concentration, gross and fine motor skills, etc. Preschool children assessments should be comprehensive and give personal, social and emotional development, as much emphasis as they do the cognitive domain (Bodrova, Leong & Shore, 2004).

The National Education Goals Panel has identified 5 areas linked to school readiness and which early years teachers are responsible to assess: Physical well being and motor development, social and emotional development, approaches towards learning, language development ,and cognitive and general knowledge (Bodrova, Leong & Shore, 2004). There should be opportunities therefore, to assess all these in turn on a regular basis.

How to Carry out Effective Assessment of Preschool Children?

While some skills may be assessed informally, such as social skills during normal day to day interactions, other types of skills will need clearly structured activities in order to be assessed effectively. Nevertheless, although informal assessment (without a clear structure) can be done effectively in some instances, there may still be a need for more formal assessment to be carried out for all skills types, especially when it comes to justifying and documenting the actual assessment practice. It may be a good idea to create a preschool assessment portfolio for each child in your class. Prior to carrying out any formal assessment, teachers should be clear about the following:

  • Why they are assessing a particular child (normal assessment routine, or are they looking for something in particular as the result of concerns or else?)
  • What skill(s) or learning predisposition(s) they intend to focus on?
  • All the props, resources and adequate planning for the activities observed are ready unless they are observing a ‘free play’ session

Again, unless you are observing a free play session, more than one adult will be required, as the one observing and recording may not be able to interact or communicate with the child, while he or she is recording for the sake of accuracy. Recording of what is being observed should be checked against national standards, and teachers or early years practitioners should refer to the suggested benchmarks for each standard, in order to conduct assessment as thoroughly as possible.

Assessment Outcome

The assessment outcome should match its previously intended aim. If a child’s social skills were assessed to find out how he or she is doing on a social development point of view, the result of the assessment should testify the child’s particular social skills at this point in time. Results should be compared to former assessment of that same skill, to evaluate progress and anticipate potential next steps in the formulation of targets or goals. This information should be kept confidentially in the child’s profile or record of achievement, and shown to parents at appropriately set times, like parents’ evening.

If the assessment concerned early years provision, or some teaching methods or strategies, comparison between this observed event and a previous observation done in similar conditions, should take place. Contextual differences and similarities between the two observed events should be highlighted, as well as unpredictable occurrences prone to impact on the observed sessions, in order to be as objective as possible and draw valid conclusions. Whatever is assessed, the outcome should be informative and a new base for further assessment.


Bodrova, E., Leong, D. & Shore, R. (2004) “Child Outcome Standards in Pre K Programs: What are Standards, What is Needed to Make them Work?” National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), Issue 5 -

Mc Cauley, L. (2004) “The Developmental Assessment of Young Children: A Practical and Theoretical View "


Shepard, L. A. (1994) “The Challenges of Assessing Young Children Appropriately”

Vaac, N. A. & Ritter, S. H. (1995) “Assessment of Preschool Children” ERIC Digest -

Photo Credit

Child Playing - Flickr/James Emery