In Early Years (EY), we are often proud to say that assessment, particularly Known as AfL for short, and also known as formative assessme... (Assessment for Learning (also known as formative assessment)...), is something that we do well. With the expectations on how EY practitioners guide and assess children’s learning clearly articulated in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), assessment is done primarily in a formative way through ongoing observation and analysis, and should feed directly into planning.
Following this idea, this article will explore an individual student case through the lens of key ‘principles’ as proposed by Jan Dubiel (2016), and how assessment was used to support this particular student.
Principled assessment in the early years
Dubiel (2016) proposes eight key principles upon which ‘effective’ EY assessment should be based. These principles are useful to consider when approaching assessment in Early Years.
Whilst Dubiel’s (2016) work isn’t the first that has attempted to capture the principles of effective assessment (Assessment Reform Group, 2002; Volante, 2006), his work draws from a synthesis of research which is grounded in best practice for EY.
For the purpose of this piece I will draw upon three of these principles, reflecting on how they manifested in light of the learning journey of a particular child in my class. Three propositions that Dubiel (2016) makes, are that assessment in EY should be:
Accurate and authentic
It should be shaped primarily by practitioners’ observations of child-initiated activity, rather than adult-directed testing activities. Furthermore, it should draw on multiple aspects of children’s learning and development as well as multiple perspectives to provide a holistic picture of the child.
Have a clear purpose to support provision and pedagogy
Dubiel (2016) maintains that it should feed directly into the design of provision and the ways in which children’s learning is supported. Moreover, the assessment should extend a practitioner’s knowledge and understanding of a child, as Coe (citied in Kime et al., 2017, p. 14) states, ‘assessment should tell you something new; often enough for it to be valuable, but not so often that it undermines your judgement’.
Incorporate a means for accountability
Information from assessments can be used to facilitate meaningful reflection upon the impact of the approaches taken to pedagogy and provision, an internal form of accountability. Furthermore, an awareness of external forms of accountability is of importance. Dubiel (2016) highlights this form of accountability ‘is appropriate and valid’ Dubiel (2016, p. 79), but emphasises that it should be aligned to existing accountability practices and support the ongoing practice of EY practitioners.
A case of impact: Kalindi’s story
Kalindi was a summer-born child who was technically supposed to be in year 1. Her parents had requested to hold her back in Reception citing concerns about her development. She came from a non-English speaking background, but communicated very little in either her mother tongue or in English, instead using gestures and single words and often got very frustrated. Her parents were keen to work with us and were active users of Tapestry, an online observation tool (we even used it for the year 1 cohort this year with great feedback from parents).
In terms of the first two principles – that assessment is ‘accurate and authentic’ and that it has ‘a clear purpose to support provision and pedagogy’ (Dubiel, 2016, p.75 – 78) – we documented Kalindi’s learning and development using a range of videos and photos with written observations, aligning our judgements with the EYFS. We ran weekly planning meetings and used this time to collate the evidence gathered over the week and incorporated this into our provision. We noticed that Kalindi gravitated to water and sand play on a daily basis and preferred to play alone or alongside other children.
After speaking with her parents, and discovering that this behaviour was consistent at home, we focused on these two areas of provision as a means to support the development of her language and social skills within the classroom. We introduced a number of toys and sensory experiences that appealed to Kalindi but also provided an opportunity for her to use simple sentences that contained a subject/object and verb which was a big step for her. Her progress was regularly celebrated at home when her parents used the online learning journal to look at what she had done over the course of the week.
Upon entry, Kalindi was significantly below her age expected level. The information gathered from the baselining process was shared with the senior leadership team and arrangements were made for an educational psychologist to assess Kalindi. We received further training for staff on how to run a range of different speech and language sessions, and reviewed the progress of these interventions regularly. By spring term, we found that Kalindi had memorised the routine of these sessions but her use of language didn’t seem to be progressing much more than short subject/object-verb sentences.
This touches on Dubiel’s (2016, p. 79) ‘internal accountability’ principle, ensuring that assessments facilitated a meaningful reflection on the impact of our provision and interventions. We decided to raise the level of challenge for Kalindi and began to work with her using a programme called Colourful Semantics, which we found to have a significant impact on her spoken language and improved her ability to interact positively with her peers and adults.
The principled way in which we assessed Kalindi allowed us to make decisions in partnership with her parents and senior leaders. Whilst our focus throughout the year was primarily on supporting her in prime areas of learning (personal, social and emotional development, communication and language and physical development), it required accurate, authentic assessment that fed directly into planning and provision within the classroom environment and fostered strong internal (and therefore external) accountability within our team and wider school community. As a result we were happy with the progress that she made from her own starting point, knowing that she had solid foundations on which she could continue to make progress. We were able to ensure that our provision was designed with experiences that would interest and challenge Kalindi.
In the midst of the process of assessment we can sometimes focus upon one aspect of it too much and neglect the overarching purposes of assessment. Dubiel’s (2016) principles helped our team to provide a much more purposeful and effective form of support for Kalindi. It ensured that this support was tailored to her needs and interests, taking into account the role that her family also played in her development. And whilst a range of different modes of assessment were used, the authenticity and accuracy of the assessment remained a constant factor, relying primarily on observations of Kalindi’s engagement in activities of her own choosing that she was intrinsically motivated to participate in.
Although authenticity and accuracy in assessment is absolutely necessary, it is likely to mean nothing if the findings of the assessment are not applied and used to guide provision and pedagogical choices. In the case of Kalindi, we were able to ensure that our provision was designed with experiences that would interest and challenge her.
Finally, across all of this we regularly reviewed the appropriateness and effectiveness of any support given to Kalindi, a level of internal accountability that ensured that effort and energy was as wisely directed as possible. A principled approach to assessment ensured that our efforts to support Kalindi were holistic, targeted and ultimately, effective in supporting her in her learning and development.