As the parent of a child entering kindergarten, you're sure to be shocked and amazed by what's changed since your days on the story rug. Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be. Good news though: while many of the changes you observe make  kindergarten a more challenging and potentially pressuring stage, it’s all in the name of teaching your child more effectively.

If the buzzword assessment has popped up as you and your child prepare for school, you are not alone. Schools across the nation administer all types of assessments to students of all ages. Simply put, an assessment is a tool that teachers use to guide the way they teach. Yes, they come in the form of “tests,” but for kindergarteners, they're not the kind of pencil and paper examinations you may be anxiously picturing.

The types of assessments that teachers use vary depending on the school in question. Some states have standardized tests (tests that are the same for every student in a certain population, and are scored and compared to a standard or norm) which are given to students as young as kindergarten. More commonly used for younger students though, are observational or performance-based assessments. Observational assessment is based on what a teacher observes a child to know or be capable of doing. For example, if a teacher wants to know whether or not a child knows her colors, she may ask the entire class to take out a red crayon and hold it up high. The teacher can then observe who was able to complete the task successfully.

Because kindergarten is usually the first time students enter into a formal school system, teachers have virtually no information about the skills they have. So as scary as they may seem, assessments are important. It makes sense for teachers to want to find out as soon as possible, in some cases before school even starts, what your child’s capabilities are. Once a teacher gets a snapshot of what each student can do, she can plan her lessons accordingly.

The skill set that kids bring to kindergarten varies from child to child, class to class, and year to year, making assessments top priority for teachers at the beginning of kindergarten. Some teachers will do all the assessment they need during class time, in group settings or one-on-one. Other teachers find it easier to work on assessing students individually, before and after school while the classroom is quiet.

What kinds of skills are assessed in kindergarten classrooms across the nation? Here's a list of some commonly assessed skills, that are key to informing teachers and parents of a child’s capability level. Keep in mind that most children will not have all of these skills in place on Day 1-- this list can also be used as a guide for what your child should be able to do by the end of the year. Teachers commonly assess where kids are with these sets of skills at the beginning of kindergarten, so they can guide their improvement, at the appropriate pace and level, throughout the year:

• Name writing: Can your child write her first and last name?

• Spelling strategies: What kind of spelling skills does your child have in place?

• Pencil Grip: Does your child hold his pencil correctly?

• Colors: Can your child name and/or recognize all of the basic colors?

• Shapes: Can your child name basic geometric and 3-dimensional shapes?

• Direction- Following: Can your child follow two or three simple but unrelated directions? For example, "Hang up your coat, put the book away, and meet me on the rug."

• Concept of Time: Does your child understand concepts like today, tomorrow and yesterday?

• Alphabet: Can your child recite the alphabet?

• Letter and Sound Recognition: Can your child name each letter, capital and lowercase, and make the sound that corresponds to it?

• Counting: How high can your child count?

• Number Recognition: Can your child recognize and order numbers?

• Letter and Number Writing: Can your child write each letter and number using proper pencil strokes?

• Reading Skills: Can your child read simple words or sentences?

• Concepts About Print: Does your child know whether a book is right side up or not? Does she know to start reading at the left of the page, and then move to the right? Can she correspond a written word with a spoken word?

It may seem like a lot, but kindergarten teachers do not generally expect that a child has mastered all of these skills before they start school. In fact, many of these skills make up the core of what will be taught during the kindergarten year. Often times, the exact same assessment that was given in the first few weeks of school is given again at the end of kindergarten, in order to see the strides that each child has made.

Keep in mind that the goal of assessment is generally not to see if your child “measures up,” at least not at this stage in their educational lives. It is for this reason, that Shannon Riley-Ayers, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor for the National Institute for Early Education Research, suggests that parents don’t dwell on test preparation.

“It’s hard to ‘prepare’ your child for an assessment. It’s more a matter of making sure your kids have adequate exposure to things like words and letters, which they can get just by looking at cereal boxes and things like that. I wouldn’t encourage parents to attempt to teach to the test, or do any sort of ‘drill and kill’ exercises,” says Riley-Ayers.

What parents should do, however, is use the information that the teacher gets from the assessment to help teach their child at home. Ayers-Riley says, “Hopefully teachers will communicate the information they gained from the assessment in a way that is understandable to parents. That way, parents can determine what their next steps are for teaching the child, just as a teacher would.” They can work on kindergarten games and skill building activities at home, to compliment what's happening in the classroom.

Have a little one that you know will crack under pressure? Teachers realize this is a possibility, so don't be afraid to bring it up. If you're concerned that the view the teacher got of your child or his abilities isn’t accurate, Ayers-Riley suggests talking to the teacher about it.

“Compare the teacher’s anecdotal information about how your child responded to the assessment with your own knowledge of his general behaviors. If your child seems to have acted differently because of nervousness or discomfort in the situation, let the teacher know.”

One of the best ways to understand how and why teachers assess such young learners is to see the assessment process first-hand. Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher if it would be acceptable for you to sit in on your child’s assessment appointment, or drop in to see a whole-group assessment in action. To the average eye, it may just even look like excellent, everyday teaching.

There are very few “tests” in life for which you can confidently advise your child to “wing it,” but for kindergarten assessments, “winging it” is just what teachers want them to do. A baseline needs to be established so that parents and teachers can help their children show maximum growth.

So don’t let assessments daunt you. Let them guide you!

Curious what your child will learn this year in each of the key academic subjects, and where she'll be come graduation? Read our guides:

Writing: What Happens in Kindergarten?

What Happens in Kindergarten Reading

Kindergarten Math: What Happens This Year