Screening and Assessment in Early Childhood Settings

Screening and assessment are two vital components of high-quality early childhood programs. Sometimes the words are used interchangeably to describe the method for collecting data about a child’s development. They are two very different, though connected, activities.  Both are integral to quality early childhood and public education systems. Both provide adults with important data that can be used to improve the learning environment for children. But they are different activities that serve different purposes.  As described by the Federal Office of Head Start:

Screening quickly captures a glimpse of a child’s health and developmental status via the use of standardized screening instruments. Assessment is a continual process that occurs throughout a child’s enrollment … that tracks the child’s developmental progress.”[1]

Though screening and assessment are distinct and separate activities, they are linked.  Both activities are needed to understand and support young children’s development. Screening and assessment can also be used to document and evaluate program effectiveness.  Both activities provide vital data to policy makers, administrators, teachers and parents.  Teachers and parents need consistent, reliable information so they can ensure that the curriculum is designed to best achieve specific learning goals and outcomes for each child. Program administrators need reliable information to ensure professional development activities are relevant and productive, and to determine if established curriculum and teaching practices are appropriate and effective.  Policy makers need reliable aggregate data to make informed decisions at the state level. 

Two policy recommendations the Maine Children’s Alliance (MCA) consistently promotes are:

1) The use of standardized screening tools at specific points in every child’s development either in a physician’s office or in an early childhood program setting such as home visiting or Head Start; and

2) A common and consistently implemented statewide tool used at kindergarten entry

In both of these recommendations, we are talking about screening  – collecting data that provides information on a child’s physical, cognitive, and social-emotional health.  A screening is like a data snapshot of a child’s development. 

In the first five years of a child’s life, standardized screenings at specific points provide parents, physicians and educators the opportunity to determine if a developmental evaluation is needed.  Early identification of developmental delays and behavioral problems can lead to timely interventions that best support a child’s development.  Research has demonstrated that there are specific moments in a young child’s development when intervention can be most effective and can reverse negative impacts.  Standardized screenings are the best way to identify developmental delays and behavioral challenges. Failure to detect developmental and behavioral challenges before kindergarten contributes to a greater number of children referred for special education services in the public school system and is much more costly over the long-term. 

A kindergarten entry screening provides teachers and program administrators with information about each child’s developmental status when they enter school.  This type of data helps a teacher know what to expect of the children when school begins in September.  Such a screening cannot be used to deny a child kindergarten services. It is used as a baseline for educators to plan the most appropriate kindergarten experiences possible for each student. 

Kindergarten screening is a method employed by most schools so they can plan for the unique needs of each child. This data is used to inform a wide range of decisions for the individual child, including provision of special education services and classroom placements. Currently, each Maine school district selects tools for kindergarten screening, independent of any common statewide data linkages.  A common set of indicators would allow policy makers to make decisions informed by data rather than based on anecdote. These indicators could be used to inform the professional development system for early care and education providers. For example, if the aggregate data demonstrates that children are arriving at kindergarten with gaps in math and science skills, statewide early childhood professional development could be focused on improving  teaching methods in those subject areas. Screening represents a moment in time for a child’s development.  When done in a culturally appropriate and respectful manner that includes information from parents, it is a very important starting point for early childhood professionals.  

Assessment is an on-going and comprehensive process aimed at understanding and improving individual student and classroom learning.  This process traces a child’s developmental progress to inform curriculum planning and individualized instruction.  Quality early childhood programs and elementary schools incorporate screenings into developmentally appropriate assessments. Developmentally appropriate assessments are linked to children’s daily activities, and not separated from the curriculum. Such assessments are culturally and linguistically responsive and inclusive of parents.  Professional development is provided based on information from the assessments to ensure teachers have the capacity to meet the needs of the children. [2] The standardized tests children take in elementary school, such as the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) or the Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) can sometimes be mistaken for a complete assessment.  These tests are actually a small part of a larger package; they are like an audit, providing useful but not all-inclusive information on a student’s progress. 

It is important to recognize that screening and assessment are complimentary, but different activities.  A screening is like a photograph– a moment in time, and informs next steps for the individual child. An assessment is like a full length, feature film – documenting a child’s developmental progress and defining individualized short and long term instructional goals.  Administrators and policy makers must strive for a balance between efficiency and validity of the screening and assessment tools.   The methodology must not become too burdensome for teachers and it should be relevant to the curriculum. Teachers are the keepers of the most important and ever changing data set – the developmental progress of each individual child. Program administrators need the data to provide a global view of their program’s effectiveness. Policy makers need data to provide an overarching view of the strengths and challenges of the education system as a whole.  Aggregate, reliable, long-term data from common screening and assessment systems is what can best inform any efforts for education reform, resource allocation, and investments in professional development systems.

[1] EARLY HEAD START TIP SHEET No. 6 Screening and Assessment for Infants & Toddlers, March 2003. Office of Head Start, Administration for Children and Families

[2] Policy Brief:  “Where We Stand On Curriculum, Assessment and Program Evaluation: NAEYC and NAECS/SDE.  NAEYC 2009 


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