Early Childhood Education

Standardized Tests and Early Childhood Education


A test, as defined by the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (1999), is “an evaluative device or procedure in which a sample of an examinee’s behavior in a specified domain is obtained and subsequently evaluated and scored using a standardized process.” In test administration, standardization refers to “maintaining a constant testing environment and conducting the test according to detailed rules and specifications, so that testing conditions are the same for all test takers” (AERA, APA, and NCME, 1999).

The use of standardized tests with very young children has caused considerable controversy in the field of early childhood education and psychology (Dyer 1973; Shepard 1994). Educators of young children have raised concerns about the appropriateness of engaging young children in formal testing situations, the limitations of standardized test scores in describing young children’s growth and development, and the use of test scores to evaluate the effectiveness of a range of programs that serve young children and their families.

In 1991, the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) issued a position statement that called for an immediate halt to “all testing of young children in preschool and in grades K-2 and the practice of testing every child in the later elementary years” (ACEI and Perrone, 1991). This position reflected the following several concerns:

• The inability of very young children to fully participate in most standardized assessment conditions, which require focused attention, a specific set of responses, and, in some instances, timed responses to a set format of questions and tasks. The major concern was whether young children were developmentally able to understand the task and to participate in standardized testing procedures.

• The failure of standardized test scores to provide classroom teachers with instructionally useful information about individual children, although the test scores were often used to make important inferences about the status of young children’s growth and development.

• The use of potentially problematic inferences in making high-stakes decisions about children’s entry into kindergarten, promotion and retention in the early grades, placement in special classes, etc., and

• The increasing pressure on early childhood educators to depart from what they considered sound curriculum practices to prepare children to take the tests.

A report to the National Education Goals Panel (Shepard et al., 1998) outlined the following set of general principles in early childhood assessment:

• Assessment should bring benefits for children.

• Assessments should be tailored to a specific purpose and should be reliable, valid, and fair for that purpose.

• Assessment policies should be designed recognizing that reliability and validity of assessments increase with children’s age.

• Assessments should be age-appropriate in both content and the method of data collection.

• Assessments should be linguistically appropriate, recognizing that to some extent all assessments are measures of language.

• Parents should be a valued source of assessment information, as well as an audience for assessment results. (pp. 5-6)

In addition, the report presented four major assessment purposes: (1) to support learning, (2) identification of special needs, (3) for program evaluation and monitoring trends, and (4) for high-stakes accountability. However, the report cautioned that, “Before age 8, standardized achievement measures are not sufficiently accurate to be used for high-stakes decisions about individual children and schools. Therefore, high-stakes assessments intended for accountability purposes should be delayed until the end of third grade (or preferably fourth grade)” (Shepard et al., 1998, p. 21).

Ironically, as the movement to expand access to quality state-funded preschool education to all children grew in the 1990s, so did the calls for increased accountability and testing of young children. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, testing in reading and mathematics was required of all students in grades 3-8 by the 2005-2006 academic year. With sanctions in place for schools in which children’s test scores did not indicate progress, programs for young children were under increasing pressure to “get children ready” for the third-grade assessments.

In addition, in September of 2003 the Head Start Bureau implemented its own pre-k standardized test. The Head Start National Reporting System (NRS) was the first nationwide skills test to be administered to over 400,000 four- and five-year-old children enrolled in Head Start-funded programs (Government Accountability Office, 2005).

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECSSDE) issued a revised position statement in which they called for appropriate use of standardized measures in the assessment of young children (NAEYC/NAECSSDE 2003). The 2003 position statement did not call for a halt to standardized testing of young children. Rather, the document outlined the following set of guidelines intended to promote appropriate use of standardized tests:

Considerations in using individual norm-referenced tests. In general, assessment specialists have urged great caution in the use and interpretation of standardized tests of young children’s learning, especially in the absence of complementary evidence and when the stakes are potentially high (Jones, 2003; National Research Council, 1999; Scott-Little et al., 2003). All assessment activities should be guided by ethical standards of quality (AERA, APA, and NCME 1999). The issues are most pressing when individual norm-referenced tests are being considered as part of an assessment system. In those cases, the standards set forth in the joint statement of the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Center for Measurement in Education (AERA, APA, NCME, 1999) provide essential technical guidelines (NAEYC and NAECSSDE, 2003, p. 10).

Although controversy continues to surround the use of standardized tests with young children, it is important to remember that assessment can provide valuable information for teachers and parents. Attention is now being focused on the development of a new breed of instruments that are sensitive to young children’s developmental levels as well as to variations in cultural and linguistic background and to the use of comprehensive assessment systems that include evidence of young children’s development from standardized tests as well as well-designed classroom-based assessments. It is important, as well, for teacher preparation programs to include “assessment literacy” as a competence in early childhood programs.

Further Readings: ACEI and Perrone, V. (1991). ACEIposition paper on standardized testing. Olney, Maryland: Association for Childhood Education International; AERA, APA, and NCME. (1999). Standards for educational and psychological testing. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association; Dyer, H. S. (1973). Testing little children: some old problems in new settings. Childhood Education 49, 362-367; Government Accountability Office (2005). Head Start: Further development could allow results of new test to be used for decision making. Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office; NAEYC and NAECSSDE. (2003). Early childhood curriculum, assessment, and program evaluation: Building an effective, accountable system in programs for children birth through age 8. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; NAEYC and NAECSSDE. (2003b). Early Childhood Curriculum, Assessment, and Program Evaluation: building an effective, accountable system in programs for children birth through 8 (with expanded resources). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Shepard, L. A. (1994). The challenges of assessing young children appropriately. Phi Delta Kappan, 75(6), 206-212; Shepard, L. A., S. L. Kagan, and Wurtz, E. (1998). Principles and recommendations for early childhood assessments. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel.

Jacqueline Jones