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Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers
whether norm-referenced or not, the assessment may be irrelevant to the intervention process.
In addition to recognizing these challenges and problems, it is important to consider the assessment approach chosen in light of the purpose one has in mind. There are attributes of standardized, norm-referenced instruments that may make them well suited to certain high-stakes decisions, such as school accountability (although the issue of age appropriateness still obtains in preschool settings), but they should not be the cornerstone of an assessment system for working with individual children to help them develop new intellectual capacities, in which careful observation of the child in context is essential (Greenspan and Wieder, 1998). As Meltzer and Reid (1994) point out, standardized tests emphasize the end product of learning, ignoring the processes and strategies children use for problem solving. They fail to distinguish between a child’s current level of performance and his or her ability to learn and acquire new skills and information. And they tend to ignore the role of motivation, personality, social factors, and cultural issues. As a consequence, the use of norm-referenced instruments has often led to misclassification and incorrect special education placements.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember about assessment of young children—whether the children are disabled, high risk, or developing typically—is that their development is episodic and uneven, with great variability within and among children. Intelligence, however one defines it, is not a stable construct in young children (e.g., Cronbach, 1990; Anatasi, 1988). This is manifest in the lack of agreement across measures and in the unreliability of assessment instruments. Standardized, norm-referenced tests are particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation because they imply a degree of certainty that assessments of young children simply cannot provide.
All of these cautionary statements about developmental and cultural issues and the potential shortcomings and misuses of standardized tests do not alter the fact that assessment is a key ingredient in the teaching and learning process. Assessment, whether of the informal variety that nearly all teachers engage in on a spontaneous basis, or of a more formal kind, can help to guide instruction and is an integral part of learning.