To work on shape identification with her preschoolers, Pasadena Head Start teacher Lawana Nelson uses brightly colored wood pieces cut in circles, squares and ovals.
“What shape is an egg?” she asked her class as they sat on the mat in front of her. Nelson held up a red, oval, wooden block. The 4-year-olds got excited, but stuttered and stammered as they tried to remember. “Oooo,” Nelson prompted the children, adding in a “v” sound then an “a” sound until finally the room erupted with “oval!!!!”
Nelson immediately followed up by asking the children if the sun is an oval. Some nodded yes, others emphatically said “no.”
Nelson quickly got a little bit of paper that she has tucked in her apron pocket and noted down the names of those who seemed to get the oval concept. Next up: a blue square.
Shape identification is a generally accepted developmental goal for the pre-Kindergarten age. But how do teachers and preschool administrators know a child is on track?
It’s an issue that has vexed the early childhood community for decades. When No Child Left Behind became law in 2002, Head Start educators had to administer standardized tests in order to get federal funding.
“We were required to do this sort of test,” said Gayle Kelly, Executive Director of the Minnesota Head Start Association. “Kind of line the children up and give them flashcards and test their skills.”
She felt it didn’t gauge much. Developmentally, she said, preschool age children are not likely to show everything they know when put on the spot and asked in a test.
“The early childhood community were very vocal in talking about how inappropriate that was for looking at child development in the early years,” Kelly said.
Advocates for early education engaged with child development experts to try to develop an alternative to the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind.
Testing children can only gauge “discrete skills,” said Elizabeth Crocker from the Unity Council in Oakland, which runs Head Start and state-funded preschools serving 272 kids.
She said it’s critical that assessment of preschoolers looks at how they learn and how they approach learning, to figure out ways to help the child grow.
"Then from that, take time to reflect on what we know [and] take time to plan for those children’s learning activities," she said.
Every child will be different. At this young age, there are other developmental areas that also need to be assessed, like social-emotional development.
When the testing mandate for preschoolers was eliminated from No Child Left Behind, many programs replaced tests with an observational-based assessment of children’s progress. In California, Head Start and other state funded programs began using a tool called the Desired Results Developmental Profile.
This was a completely different way of assessing a child’s knowledge and skills. It involved on-going teacher observation and note taking.
Teachers observe children during academic lessons and in play, and note their challenges and progress, said Erika Diaz, Education Coordinator for the Options Head start program.
Diaz said her teachers use games or activities where children will “exhibit" what they know. And teachers are keenly watching.
“It's very informal,” Diaz said, so children will not feel pressure or like they are being tested.
Which is why Nelson, the Pasadena preschool teacher, wears an apron with a front pocket filled with little scraps of paper. She takes notes on her students constantly.
Diaz says that preschool is not the right place to put kids on the spot and make them answer questions to gauge what they know. Just because a 4-year-old is unfocused doesn’t mean the child is not progressing, or learning.
“You do get some kids that are very advanced, that they’re able to sit down 15 minutes and answer questions," she said. "But then we have the children who don’t have as much experience, whose attention spans really short that can’t sit down, that doesn’t focus and follow through with what is being asked.”