Research tells us that preschoolers’ vocabulary predicts their ability to understand what they read in third grade. Yet in Massachusetts, the third grade MCAS is the first statewide assessment of student progress. The commonwealth is moving toward adopting developmentally appropriate kindergarten entry assessments that, among other things, will measure children’s language development and emerging literacy. Indeed, kindergarten entry assessments are a key part of the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge; Massachusetts was awarded a four-year $50 million Early Learning Challenge grant in December 2011.
Three recently released memos from Harvard’s Lead for Literacy series look at the importance of using developmentally appropriate tools to assess children’s language and literacy skills, starting in early childhood. Results of assessments should be used to inform instruction and help determine the need for early intervention and other services. “Neglecting to regularly assess young children’s literacy development can do more harm than good,” states one memo. “In fact, assessment-driven remediation and enrichment activities look similar in the early years and are often enjoyed by young children!” (See “The Importance of Early Literacy Assessment.”)
The memo recommends a comprehensive approach to assessing young children’s language development that includes pediatricians and health centers, as well as educators. The results should be “used to initiate conversations about healthy language development and encourage language-building practices,” the memo states, and, when appropriate, “to link children and families with additional services.”
A second memo – “Comprehensive Assessment: Towards a More Complete Picture of Literacy” – notes the importance of testing skills-based competencies – such as knowing letter names and sounds – as well as knowledge-based competencies, such as vocabulary and comprehension. “Measuring children’s progress in one type of competency can mask significant weaknesses in the other,” it states. “Both are needed for literacy success.” The memo also stresses the importance of using multiple measures to obtain a complete and balanced look at children’s progress.
A third memo – “Comprehensive Assessment: Making Sense of Test Type and Purpose” – looks at the various types of assessments. Here’s a summary:
- Diagnostic assessments: How should I focus my daily instruction?
- Screening assessments: Are children meeting benchmarks?
- Progress monitoring assessments: Are children responding to instruction?
- Outcome assessments: Are we delivering quality instruction?
“While the tasks may seem disconnected or silly,” the memo states, “standardized literacy assessments give clear indications of risks and often reveal problems that may not be apparent from day-to-day interactions alone.”
The Lead for Literacy memos are an initiative of the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The research group is headed by Professor Nonie Lesaux, author of “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” which we commissioned in 2010 and which informs the memos.