In 2006, Congress requested that the National Research Council (NRC) conduct a study of developmental outcomes and appropriate assessment of young children. With funding from the Office of Head Start in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the specific charge to this committee was the identification of important outcomes for children from birth to age 5 and the quality and purposes of different techniques and instruments for developmental assessments.
The committee’s review highlights two key principles. First, the purpose of an assessment should guide assessment decisions. Second, assessment activity should be conducted within a coherent system of medical, educational, and family support services that promote optimal development for all children.
Our focus on the need for purposefulness and systematicity is particularly important at this time, because young children are currently being assessed for a wide array of purposes, across a wide array of domains, and in multiple service settings. The increase in the amount of assessment raises understandable worries about whether assessments are selected, implemented, and interpreted correctly. Assessments of children may be used for purposes as diverse as determining the level of functioning of individual children, guiding instruction, or measuring functioning at the program, community, or state level.
Different purposes require different types of assessments, and the evidentiary base that supports the use of an assessment for one purpose may not be suitable for another. As the consequences of assessment findings become weightier, the accuracy and quality of the instruments used to provide findings must be more certain. Decisions based on an assessment that is used to monitor the progress of one child can be important to that child and her family and thus must be taken with caution, but they can also be challenged and revisited more easily than assessments used to determine the fate or funding for groups of children, such as those attending a local child care center, an early education program, or a nationwide program like Head Start. When used for purposes of program evaluation and accountability, often called high stakes,1
We have adopted the following definition of high-stakes assessment (see Appendix A): Tests and/or assessment processes for which the results lead to sig