Several key pieces of legislation over the past three decades have contributed to the evolution of the assessment process for young children with special needs. Specifically, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act amendments (P.L. 99–457, 1986), later renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, P.L. 102–119, 1998), the 1997 version of IDEA (P.L. 105–17, 1997–1998), the 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind, P.L. 107–110), and the most recently authorized 2004 version of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, P.L. 108–446) have all provided critical guidelines for the identification, assessment, and treatment of young children with special needs. While, initially, the focus of legislation was to merely identify children in need of early intervention services, there has been an increased emphasis in the most recent legislation (IDEA 2004; NCLB) on looking ahead to school-based services. By specifically examining precursors to reading and mathematics skills, assessment teams are getting a clearer picture of potential academic difficulties and determining which educational interventions may be helpful at the preschool level. While a Response to Intervention approach is beginning to be used in the early elementary school years to look at children with specific learning disabilities (IDEA, 2004), it is only beginning to be examined for use at the preschool level (Coleman, Buysse, & Nietzel, 2006). This is a shift that will likely occur within the next decade.

Concurrent with these legal initiatives, several professional organizations have introduced a number of standards for assessment and treatment in the early childhood domain. Organizations such as the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA, 1990), the National Association of School Psychologists (2005), and the Division for Early Childhood of the Council for Exceptional Children (1993, 2002; Neisworth & Bagnato, 2000) have offered statements pertaining to the assessment of and treatment practices for young children with special needs. Additionally, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in state departments of education published a joint position statement pertaining to guidelines for the assessment of young children (NAEYC & NAECS/SDE, 2002). Selected principles include the following:

  1. Professionals and families collaborate in planning and implementing the multidisciplinary team assessment.
  2. Assessment is individualized and both developmentally and culturally appropriate for the child and family.
  3. Assessment provides useful information for intervention and leads to benefits for children, families, and programs.
  4. Assessment measures must meet accepted professional standards of validity and reliability.
  5. Professionals share information in respectful and useful ways.

Specific assessment standards have been recommended for early childhood assessment (Neisworth & Bagnato, 1996; Neisworth & Bagnato, 2001). Although these standards seem quite reasonable and have been promoted for many years, it is likely that they have not yet been fully implemented across all early childhood assessment settings.

Treatment Utility

One of the major considerations in the assessment process should be treatment utility; that is, the usefulness of the measure or approach to guide intervention and educational planning. Results of the assessment should link directly to curriculum competencies or help identify instructional or therapy goals. Many traditional types of assessment strategies that have been applied to preschool-aged as well as school-aged children have yielded little information useful for program planning and specific treatment strategies (Neisworth & Bagnato, 2004). Although traditional tools, such as formal cognitive measures, might be a component of a child’s evaluation in terms of making a diagnosis or establishing eligibility, these should be augmented routinely with other measures that are more sensitive to treatment utility.

Social Validity

The second standard, social validity, refers to the perceived value, acceptability, and appropriateness of the assessment. Several key questions should be asked in relation to this standard, such as, “Is the assessment viewed as valuable for the specific situational factors presented by a child and his family?” and “Are the assessment methods acceptable to the participants?” Many of the items found on typical early childhood assessment measures require a child to perform tasks that represent isolated skills, but the tasks themselves have little validity with respect to that child’s daily functioning. For example, completing a pegboard may be an important normative finding (i.e., can the child perform this task at the same level as other children of the same age?), but the process may or may not relate to why the child is having trouble with buttoning, zipping, and other functional activities in her daily life. Social validity considerations also may increase the probability that the family and other professionals will become more involved in the assessment, treatment, and monitoring processes.

Convergent Assessment

There is a legal mandate that treatment planning not be based on a single assessment procedure. Convergent assessment is a process to synthesize information collected across multiple methods, sources, settings, and occasions. The specific methods by which data are gathered are less critical than the importance of involving multiple sources of information from parents, teachers, and others who know the child well. The subsequent pooling of information offers a more comprehensive and valid picture of the child’s strengths and needs across settings. As a result, the process provides a firmer foundation upon which to make diagnostic and programmatic decisions and establishes multiple mechanisms for monitoring development. Convergent assessment values and encourages the participation of family members and others throughout this process.

Consensual Validity

A final standard, consensual validity, reflects the need to reach assessment decisions via collaboration and consensus among the team members. This occasionally is much easier said than done. Although the general intent of multidisciplinary teams is to serve the best interests of the child and family, sometimes this intent can become clouded by issues related to the team’s group dynamics. Problems can occur, such as one professional not being able to communicate clearly to another professional because of discipline-specific jargon (i.e., no common language), no common assessment purpose or tools (i.e., their “measuring sticks” are different), a lack of clear leadership, or an attempt by one discipline to control or take precedence over others. Each of these problems can interfere with the mission of the team: to determine the child’s developmental and educational needs and to link them to an appropriate plan of intervention.