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November 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 3

Dissolving the Line Between Assessment and Teaching

Ongoing assessments for learning are a needed complement to standardized testing in early childhood classrooms.

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In a Head Start classroom in Chicago, a group of children busy themselves in an assortment of learning centers. Mrs. McDonald, the head teacher, invites 4-year-old Hassen to sit next to her at a table, where she has placed a test booklet for the National Reporting System, a high-stakes achievement test being administered across the United States to all 4- and 5-year-olds in Head Start.
“Point to elbow,” Mrs. McDonald instructs Hassen, and he does so correctly. “Point to rewarding,” she continues. Hassen looks at the four pictures on the page of the test booklet and points to one—an incorrect answer according to the answer sheet. Mrs. McDonald marks a zero on the score sheet. The test takes about 15 minutes, and Hassen identifies the correct response 67 percent of the time.
Later the same day, Mrs. McDonald calls the students to the rug where the class meets as a group. To settle them down, she asks them to choose a book from the classroom library and “read” to themselves for a few minutes. During this quiet reading time, she encourages individual children to pick their favorite book and read it to her. Hassen eagerly raises his hand, clutching Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? He has heard this book read many times and has memorized the words. As he reads the story to Mrs. McDonald, Hassen happily chants and rocks his body in rhythm to the phrases: “Brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? I see a red bird looking at me. Red bird, red bird, what do you see? I see a. . . a . . .” Hassen sneaks a look at the next page, then continues, “. . . I see a yellow duck looking at me.”
While listening to Hassen read, Mrs. McDonald circles Level 4 on a performance rubric designed for the activity of a child reading a book aloud. She also jots down a few notes describing Hassen's expressive tone of voice and his hand and eye movements. At Level 4 on this rubric, a student's reading is a memorized rendition of the text rather than a true decoding. Hassen's reading takes just under two minutes. When he's finished, he looks at his teacher with a big, proud smile.

Two Faces of Assessment

Mrs. McDonald uses two kinds of assessments in her classroom: assessments of learning and assessments for learning (Earl, 2003). The National Reporting System test she administered is an example of an assessment of learning. Such assessments typically involve a series of tasks developed by testing professionals, with student performance expressed in a quantitative score. The tests tend to be given at the end of a set learning period and aim to evaluate how much a student has learned as a result of instruction. These assessments are usually norm-referenced or criterion-referenced and are used to hold learners, teachers, and schools accountable.
Assessments of learning have received much attention in the wake of No Child Left Behind and widespread concern about the effectiveness of public education. When used appropriately, such assessments can yield useful information for developing programs, making funding decisions, and examining patterns of student achievement. But such one-time testing provides little useful information for curricular development and classroom teaching, particularly with young children, whose development is sporadic (Raver & Zigler, 2004).
This is where assessments for learning come in. Assessments for learning improve teaching by showing teachers each student's developing abilities in relation to standards, key concepts, and fundamental skills (Earl, 2003). Like Hassen's reading of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, these assessments are authentic and carried out in the context of familiar, meaningful classroom activities. They are also ongoing, repeated as often as the teacher needs additional information to track a child's continuing development. Information gained through such performance-based assessments is generally rich and detailed, ripe for use in curriculum planning.
Yet assessments for learning have their challenges, too. Observation and documentation are at the heart of these assessments, but teachers are not always sure what to observe and document. A further challenge for teachers is how to use the insights gained through ongoing observation of children's strengths and weaknesses to enhance curriculum and instruction.

The Bridging Assessment Process

What Is Bridging?

One example of an effective assessment for learning in the early grades is the Bridging assessment system, which we have developed as part of our work at the Erikson Institute. Bridging measures young students' performance on 19 curriculum-embedded activities that signal readiness to learn in five key curricular areas. The assessment package includes descriptions of each activity, detailed rubrics and recording sheets for each activity, and suggestions for teachers on how to extend and expand children's learning in each curricular area (Chen, McNamee, Masur, McCray, & Melendez, 2005).
During the last five years, about 300 prekindergarten through 3rd grade teachers in the Chicago Public Schools have participated in a yearlong professional development seminar on using the Bridging assessment system. The participating teachers meet once a month. They learn the theories that anchor Bridging, strategies for implementing activities in the classroom, ways to assess and analyze students' performances on the activities, and ways to translate these results into improved teaching and learning. Because seminar sessions span the course of a school year, teachers can try out various assessment activities in their classrooms, bring the results back to the seminar for analysis and reflection, and return to the classroom with new ideas. Over the course of the year, teachers learn how to dissolve the line dividing assessment and teaching.
The Bridging system has also been translated into Chinese and used successfully in early childhood programs in Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai, China. We are now in the process of publishing the Bridging materials and a training manual.
Assessments for learning that are based in authentic classroom activities help teachers remember the rich opportunities for learning inherent in such everyday tasks as looking at a book, dramatizing stories, and working with pattern blocks. Such assessment complements standardized tests and gives us ground-level insight into what children are learning day to day.
The 19 activities of Bridging, for example, cover five curricular areas: language arts and literacy, visual arts, mathematics, science, and performing arts. Within each of the five curricular areas, the activities draw on a range of skills, providing children with many opportunities to become engaged in school. This breadth of coverage enables teachers to see children from multiple perspectives. Many teachers are surprised as students reveal previously unseen strengths and interests. One teacher remarked,I couldn't believe it when I saw Omar's pattern block pictures. They are elaborate, colorful, and imaginative. Right now he is more skilled in using this medium to express ideas than he is using paper and pencil.
Another teacher marveled at a student's movement:Takarie made my day today. He always looks sad and depressed. But in the Bridging Moving to Music activity, he demonstrated exceptional understanding of rhythm, moving body parts and changing tempo in concert with the music. Seeing how much he enjoyed dancing, two girls wanted to dance with him and that made him smile even more!

Learning Profiles and Rubrics

The Bridging system enables teachers to create an ongoing individual learning profile for each student, showing the student's performance on each assessment activity (see fig. 1). A comparison with other students' learning profiles reveals each child's unique and often uneven pattern of development across the curricular areas. Teachers can begin to consider how to further develop each student's strengths and use those strengths as a point of entry to address areas in which the child is less experienced.

Figure 1. Sample Bridging Assessment Learning Profile

This focus on the individual is particularly powerful for understanding children who are considered troubled or difficult. Omar's teacher, for example, built on Omar's newly revealed spatial ability by extending it to more complex explorations of blocks, math manipulatives, puzzles, and even abstract paintings. Takarie's teacher drew on the rhythmic similarity between music and language to help develop his language skills, engaging Takarie in learning nursery rhymes by adding improvised music and beats. The whole class became excited about the activity and joined in. Both these students progressed because their teachers achieved a more complete picture of their abilities by assessing them in diverse curricular areas.
For each Bridging activity, we have developed a 10-level rubric that places key concepts and skills for children ages 3–8 on a developmental continuum. We based these rubrics on research and verified their validity through field tests. For example, the rubric for the Child Picks a Book activity that Hassen participated in is based on the stages of pretend reading developed by Sulzby (1985) and work by Fountas and Pinnell in guided reading (1996).
These rubrics help teachers locate a student's current level of development with regard to the key concepts and skills for the activity and guide teachers in what to look for as the student progresses to the next stage. Each rubric describes performance indicators—specific behaviors students demonstrate—for each level.
For example, the rubric for the Child Picks a Book activity moves from Level 0 (Child Does Not Participate) to Level 10 (Independent Reader). At Level 10, the student is able to read the book fluently with appropriate intonation and with little or no support. Mrs. McDonald placed Hassen's reading of his favorite book at Level 4: Reading Verbatim-Like Story. Performance indicators for this level are “reading” the text fluently from memory, not being able to decode the print, and looking at pictures or even print to cue memorized phrases. Level 5 on the rubric is Initial Attending to Print; at this level, a student shows awareness of letters and words and understands that reading means decoding the print, even though the student cannot decode yet.
Although reading development does not proceed in a linear fashion and every child functions on a number of levels at any given time, the Bridging rubric gave Mrs. McDonald specific information about where Hassen was and where he was headed next on the continuum. This knowledge enabled her to confidently select appropriate instructional materials and methods to support his progress.

Deepening Content Knowledge and Filling in Gaps

Most early childhood teachers are trained and respected as education generalists. As generalists, they do not always have the opportunity to develop in-depth understanding of key concepts in all the foundational content areas. Key concepts are the ideas and principles that are essential to mastering a domain of knowledge. In mathematics, for example, key concepts related to number concept include stable order, one-to-one correspondence, cardinality, order-irrelevance, abstraction, mental number line, part-whole relations, and a grasp of word problems (Baroody, 2004; Dehaene, 1997).
Each Bridging activity is based on key concepts that we drew from nationally developed standards for various curricular areas. The Bridging assessment manual highlights the relevant concepts for each activity so that teachers have a framework for conducting the assessment activity, interpreting the results, and revising and implementing curriculum. Many teachers have reported that their increased understanding of key concepts in different curricular areas has helped them set clearer goals and objectives in the classroom. For example, after assessing Hassen on reading a book aloud, Mrs. McDonald recognized that his memorized recitation of his favorite book would give way to an interest in mapping this oral rendition to the written text in the near future. She began to guide his finger so that he pointed to the words on each page as he “read.”
Assessments like Bridging also help teachers identify gaps in their curriculum. One teacher who used Bridging noticed that almost all her students performed poorly on the number concept activity of estimating. She realized that she rarely incorporated estimation tasks into her group activities and subsequently added such tasks to her curriculum. Another teacher discovered in the process of charting her students' learning profiles that her class performed better in language areas than in science. She realized that this discrepancy mirrored her own strengths and interests, and she worked with colleagues to strengthen her science curriculum. Because Bridging assessment tasks are familiar classroom activities, teachers can more easily integrate their assessment findings into everyday teaching.

The Power of Assessment for Learning

Bridging is an example of an assessment for learning that supports teaching and learning while also providing data to track and verify children's learning over time. The philosophy behind assessment for learning is that assessment and teaching should be integrated into a whole. The power of such an assessment doesn't come from intricate technology or from using a specific assessment instrument. It comes from recognizing how much learning is taking place in the common tasks of the school day—and how much insight into student learning teachers can mine from this material.

Baroody, A. J. (2004). The developmental bases for early childhood number and operations standards. In D. H. Clements & J. Sarama (Eds.), Engaging young children in mathematics. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Chen, J. Q., McNamee, G., Masur, A., McCray, J., & Melendez, L. (2005). Bridging: Assessment for learning and teaching in early childhood classrooms, Vol. 1. Chicago: Erikson Institute.

Dehaene, S. (1997). The number sense: How the mind creates mathematics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Earl, L. M. (2003). Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Fountas, I. C., & Pinnell, G. S. (1996). Guided reading: Good first teaching for all children. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Raver, C. C., & Zigler, E. (2004). Another step back? Assessing readiness in Head Start. Young Children, 59(1), 58–63.

Sulzby, E. (1985, Summer). Children's emergent reading of favorite storybooks: A developmental study. Reading Research Quarterly, 458–481.

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