The Importance of Formative Assessment in Early Childhood Education

formative assessment in early childhood education

Is Your ECE Assessment Aligned to Your Goals?

by Rachel Silva

I have been working at Educa for over 3 years. In that time I have read countless articles and spoken to hundreds of educators about different types of early childhood assessments. Nobody doubts the importance of formative assessment in early childhood education, the idea of building an understanding of each child and then using that information to make good teaching decisions for that child.

However, in none of my conversations have I heard, “I love my checklists” or “the data from my assessments is so valuable.”

However, in every conversation I do hear this message: ”checklist assessment means nothing to me or my teachers,” “we are not able to connect with children the way we want to,” “My director wants family/caretaker engagement to increase” and “Time to do assessment is taking up my time getting to understand my children…”

However there is a lot of controversy about what data really matters and how best to collect that data.  And what formative assessment in ECE really is.  Formative assessment refers to assessment used “for” planning and teaching, whereas summative assessment is a statement, an end product. In reality, in the field, while many assessments are called “formative,” they end up being more summative – an output, not an input into teaching.

And so we ask, is your  assessment aligned to your teaching goals or to your philosophy?  Is it truly formative assessment? Does it help you make better decisions for your children?

Most teachers would say no and no and no.

Good vs. Bad Data

I have also heard from administrators higher up in organizations that data painstakingly collected by teachers in current practices is not really indicative of what learning is happening and often is not accurate. And perhaps as frustrating, there are disappointingly few practical actionable items that come out of the data, certainly nothing that is passed down to teachers that they didn’t already know.

Furthermore, agencies want teachers to be strength-based but checklist assessment that compares children to peers is deficit seeking. And agencies want teachers to differentiate planning for each unique child, but checklist assessment has teachers thinking of children in slices – one to another on a number of different measures – not to focus holistically, not thinking about each child as an individual, on a unique learning journey.

Because of the importance of assessment in early childhood education, various types of  ECE assessment have been used over the years.  But there are questions about whether any of these checklist data systems have provided actionable information that benefits children.  Except of course that it is required by state and federal funders and by foundation board members who are looking for numbers, but who are not actually hands on in a classroom with kids, teachers or families.

Growing teacher hostility – Why Assess?

So my question to educators when I am having discussions around assessment:

    Why are we assessing children and what are we doing with the assessment?
    Is assessment guiding your practice?
    Is assessment informing the caretakers of your children?
    Is your assessment practice helping you to get to know and connect with your children?
    Is assessment sparking conversation between caretakers, teachers, colleagues?

If current practices are not doing all of the above then we are missing the mark and wasting a ton of time, energy and yes…money. For what? Aggregate data…a spreadsheet that gives a false impression of what might or might not be real?

Learning Stories as Formative Assessment

I have spent over 3 years introducing and trying to support educators and directors in the practice of writing Learning Stories as assessment.

Learning Stories allows teachers to do EVERYTHING above: – look/observe/learn from what they see students doing…..write to the child about what they see….inform families and caretakers on what learning is happening in THEIR language….not with numbers on a spreadsheet or in terms that are not understandable…..offer opportunities for growth in formative ways, fostering conversations and collaboration with all those who surround that child.

While most Universal PreK and Head Start assessment requires linking to a developmental checklist, Learning Stories are accepted as evidence of ratings. Educa has the DRDP assessment integrated into its Learning Story software to allow users to meet their data reporting needs writing Learning Stories.

The process of careful observation of children and reflective writing about what makes them unique – the Learning Story process – is described alo as authentic assessment.  It’s a very specific type of formative assessment in early childhood education that helps teachers focus on each child’s uniqueness.

Be a Change Agent

Learning Stories allow teachers to reflect on their practice and truly think in real time about what is happening and where they have been and where they and their students are going. THIS is authentic, formative assessment in early childhood education at its best.

Work Within the System

Nobody, including me, disputes the importance of assessment in early childhood education.  However, there is a lot of discussion in education about change needed, change coming…the system is broken.

This is not something I disagree with but do we need to change the whole system to create change, or can we start with one teacher, one student, one school at a time? I think we can. I have seen it. I have seen educators make the decision to stop the checklists and move to a learning story approach and I have watched as they have moved to actually ENJOYING what they are doing.

Can I stop the system from requiring data? Not by myself but I can play a small part in helping change.

Educa has done so much work to enable teachers to write learning stories and THEN link to necessary measures as opposed to making those measures the front and center of assessment. Educa allows to do what they love with meaning and still get required data to those that need/want it.

YES we have had to adapt but we have adapted while keeping our WHY in tact.

I am an Optimist

Yes, I am an optimist… WHY? My why is I would like to believe that everyone in education has a common why….the kids. WE are in this because we love kids and we love learning and we love being connected. Stories connect. It’s that simple.

For more information on how Educa can help you bring the Learning Story software approach to your center, contact us at