Not too long ago, resources on early childhood assessment were limited to occasional articles in journals, chapters in textbooks on teaching in early childhood programs, and a few small textbooks that were used as secondary texts in an early childhood education course. Very few teacher preparation programs offered a course devoted to assessment in early childhood. Now, in the 21st century, assessment of very young children has experienced a period of very rapid growth and expansion. In fact, it has been described as a “virtual explosion of testing in public schools” (Meisels & Atkins-Burnett, 2005, p. 1).

There has also been an explosion in the numbers of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in early childhood programs and the types of programs that serve them. Moreover, the diversity of these young children increases each year. Currently, Head Start programs serve children and families who speak at least 140 different languages. In some Head Start classrooms, 10 different languages might be used. Head Start teaching teams also may be multilingual, also representing diversity (David, 2005).

What is assessment? What do we need to know about all these diverse children with all kinds of families, cultures, and languages? The study of individuals for measurement purposes begins before birth with assessment of fetal growth and development. At birth and throughout infancy and early childhood, various methods of measurement are used to evaluate the child’s growth and development. Before a young child enters a preschool program, he or she is measured through medical examinations and observations of developmental milestones by parents and other family members, and is perhaps screened or evaluated for an early childhood program or service. A current definition describes the assessment process: “Assessment is the process of gathering information about children from several forms of evidence, then organizing and interpreting that information” (McAfee, Leong, & Bodrova, 2004, p. 3).

Assessment of children from birth through the preschool years is different from assessment of older people. Not only can young children not write or read, but the young developing child presents different challenges that influence the choice of measurement strategy. Assessment methods must be matched with the level of mental, social, and physical development at each stage. Developmental change in young children is rapid, and there is a need to assess whether development is progressing normally. If development is not normal, the measurement and evaluation procedures used are important in making decisions regarding appropriate intervention services during infancy and the preschool years.

Assessment is used for various purposes. We may want to learn about individual children. We may conduct an evaluation to assess a young child’s development in language or mathematics. When we need to learn more, we may assess the child to describe what he or she has achieved. For example, a first-grade teacher may use measurement techniques to determine what reading skills have been mastered and what weaknesses exist that indicate a need for additional instruction.

Assessment strategies may be used for diagnosis. Just as a medical doctor conducts a physical examination of a child to diagnose an illness, psychologists, teachers, and other adults who work with children can conduct an informal or formal assessment to diagnose a developmental delay or identify causes for poor performance in learning.

If medical problems, birth defects, or developmental delays in motor, language, cognitive, or social development are discovered during the early, critical periods of development, steps can be taken to correct, minimize, or remediate them before the child enters school. For many developmental deficits or differences, the earlier they are detected and the earlier intervention is planned, the more likely the child will be able to overcome them or compensate for them. For example, if a serious hearing deficit is identified early, the child can learn other methods of communicating and acquiring information.

Assessment of young children is also used to place them in infant or early childhood programs or to provide special services. To ensure that a child receives the best services, careful screening and more extensive testing may be conducted before selecting the combination of intervention programs and other services that will best serve the child.

Program planning is another purpose of assessment. After children have been identified and evaluated for an intervention program or service, assessment results can be used in planning the programs that will serve them. These programs, in turn, can be evaluated to determine their effectiveness.

Besides identifying and correcting developmental problems, assessment of very young children is conducted for other purposes. One purpose is research. Researchers study young children to better understand their behavior or to measure the appropriateness of the experiences that are provided for them.

The National Early Childhood Assessment Resource Group summarized the purposes for appropriate uses of assessment in the early childhood years as follows:

  • Assessing to promote children’s learning and development
  • Identifying children for health and social services
  • Monitoring trends and evaluating programs and services
  • Assessing academic achievement to hold individual students, teachers, and schools accountable (Shepard, Kagan, Lynn & Wurtz, 1998, p.20–21).