Authentic assessment techniques are a necessary part of the early learning program and curriculum. On the spot, teachers can use an observation of children interacting to teach social skills, or the results of an interview can be immediately used to extend, expand, or clarify and refine children’s thinking and ideas.

School systems and state departments of education sometimes require a different type of evaluation. To account for children’s learning, schools need to have some indication of how groups of children are achieving. Despite the problems associated with the use of standardized tests, many school systems select these as a means of summing up the overall worth of a program and accounting for children’s achievement.

As the name suggests, standardized tests are designed to be standard. Developed around a pattern, standardized tests assess a specific domain, content area, attitude, knowledge, or skill. They must be given under the same conditions, with the same directions, and within the same specified time period. They usually have a manual that contains instructions for administering, scoring, and interpreting the test results. If there is any variation in the methods or timing of the administration, the test is no longer considered standardized.

There is a norming sample on which the test was developed. This sample should be representative of the children taking the test. If a test was normed on children who are very different from those in your class or school, then the test would not be a very good judge of what your children know and can do. For instance, middle-class suburban children are raised in a culture that differs from that of children living in rural or poor areas of the country. Most existing tests, even though translated into Spanish, seem inadequate to assess bilingual children or those from diverse cultural backgrounds (Gullo, 1994).

The results of standardized tests are interpreted on the basis of the normal curve. By using the normal curve, one can identify how an individual deviates from the standard. Within the normal curve and the normative standards derived from the curve, it is possible to make meaningful evaluations about an individual child or school. Three-, four-, and five-year-old children may be administered several different types of standardized tests, including (a) readiness tests, (b) achievement tests, (c) screening and diagnostic tests, and (d) intelligence tests.

Readiness Tests

One group of standardized tests is designed to predict readiness to learn or the probable degree to which success in some specific subject, segment of education, or area of the curriculum can be achieved. Readiness tests are developed to assess the children’s ability to profit from instruction in the near future, kindergarten, or first grade rather than later elementary school.

Tests designed to measure children’s readiness to learn to read are called reading readiness tests. Reading readiness tests and general readiness tests are similar in a number of ways. Both are designed to measure the specific academic skills and knowledge children have mastered. Kindergarten readiness tests assess whether a child has the appropriate sensory motor, cognitive, language, and social-emotional skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in kindergarten or first grade. Reading readiness tests emphasize the skills required for the early stages of reading. These skills might include oral vocabulary; rhyming or matching words; visual matching of figures, letters, or words; or naming letters and reading words.

General readiness tests include the Gesell School Readiness Tests: Complete Battery (Ilg & Ames, 1972). The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test: Third Edition (Dunn & Dunn, 1997), a test of receptive language, is sometimes used as a reading readiness test.

Achievement Tests

Achievement tests are designed to assess what a child has been taught or has learned in a given area of instruction, or at least determine a sample of what a child is able to do at the time. A wide range of achievement tests are available and widely used in schools for young children. With an achievement test, the standing of an individual child or children in different programs or schools can be compared using the common base of an achievement test. Children’s progress over time can also be compared.

Some achievement tests are norm-referenced tests. This means that the test results tell you how the child’s performance on that test compares with that of other children of the same age and grade. Other tests are criterion-referenced tests that inform teachers how well the child has mastered a set of instructional goals and objectives with the criteria specified. These are usually designed by a school system and inform teachers how well a child has mastered specific material, not how well the child is doing in comparison with other children of the same age.

Examples of norm-referenced tests used in schools for young children are the Boehm Test of Basic Concepts (Boehm, 2000), California Achievement Test (CTB/McGraw-Hill, 2000), and the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement (Woodcock & Johnson, 2003).

Screening and Diagnostic Tests

Under law, schools are responsible for identifying potential learning problems and to provide remediation for young children at risk. Diagnosis and screening consist of a brief assessment procedure designed to identify children who may need further evaluation and educational intervention. Standardized tests of achievement may be used to diagnose children; however, these are not used to assess children’s achievement. Rather, they “identify the existence of a disability or specific area of academic weakness in a child. Test results are used to suggest possible causes for the disability or academic weakness as well as suggest potential remediation strategies” (Gullo, 1994, p. 40).

Screening measures can be categorized into three groups. The first is visual-motor and adaptive skills. This involves control of fine motor movements, eye-hand coordination, and the ability to recall sequences and reproduce forms. The second area is related to language skills, comprehension, and thinking, and the third includes gross motor skills.

Frequently used screening and diagnostic tests include the Denver Developmental Screening Test (DDST; Frankenburg, Dodds, Fandal, Kazuk, & Cohrs, 2000) and the Developmental Indicators for Assessment of Learning (Revised) (DIAL-R; Mardell-Czudnowski & Goldenberg, 1998).

Intelligence Tests

Intelligence tests differ from achievement, readiness, or diagnostic tests. Although they may be used as a part of a diagnostic or readiness battery, intelligence tests purport to assess a child’s general ability, not what a child has learned. Typically, this means that they measure abstract intelligence—the ability to see relations, make generalizations, and relate and organize ideas represented in symbolic form. Children’s scores are expressed as a mental age. This describes the level at which the child is performing.

Intelligence tests can be administered individually or to groups of children. The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale (Roid, 2000) and the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (Revised) (Wechsler, 2000) are two prevalently used intelligence tests that are individually administered.