Assessment in the early years
A controversial topic in the early years is the purpose and importance of assessment. Understandably, many people argue that children should not be subject to ‘tests’ at such a young age. Assessment of learning is described by some professionals as the heart of England’s educational problems (Courtney, 2018). This article aims to discuss the important role of assessment in the planning, teaching and assessment cycle and how teachers can adapt and use their assessments in the early years.
The planning, teaching and assessment cycle can have a positive impact on all children’s learning and development as well as supporting individual children’s needs. This cycle is seen as essential for teachers to plan effectively, since they need to know information on children’s levels of understanding and interests before planning, which needs to be established through observations and assessments (Fisher, 2008). As a result of this, assessment is seen as an integral part of the learning process and ideally should begin the cycle of planning, teaching and assessing (Webber, 1999; Fisher, 2008; Briggs, et al, 2008). However, it is important to remember that assessment also has a role throughout the cycle and at the end of the cycle, when it is used to review what a child has learned and thus assess the progress they have made (Fisher, 2008; Briggs, et al, 2008; DCSF, 2007; Griffin, 2007). This practise is strongly supported by the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) which states that planning should always follow the same pattern: to observe, analyse and then plan (DCSF, 2007; DFE, 2014).
In order to plan for children’s learning, teachers need to be aware of children’s interests and abilities; these should form a basis for all planning in the early years. This is supported by the EYFS, which states that children’s choices and interests should be the main driving force for building children’s knowledge, skills and understanding (DCSF, 2009; DFE, 2014). For this reason, assessment should begin the planning cycle. Observations and assessment of children offer a starting point for planning appropriate experiences which capture and include their interests (Fisher, 2008). It is important that teachers always keep the interests of the child paramount, for activities to ‘work’ for the child (Mortimer, 2004). The distinction for assessments that take place before learning and those that take place after learning can be classified by the terms ‘assessment for learning’ and ‘assessments of learning’.
Assessment for Learning
As a result of teachers assessing for learning, all activities should be based on children’s interests; this is proven to strengthen children’s motivation, effort, memory and attention (Hedges, et al, 2011). Both nationally and internationally there is a general movement to recognise early years education as a distinctive phase in children’s learning which should be characterised by a curriculum that focus on children as individuals (Walsh, et al, 2010). The government also supports the idea of an interest-based curriculum. This is apparent in the EYFS framework, the Early Learning Goals (ELGs) provide enough flexibility to enable teachers to follow children’s interests (DFE, 2014). The EYFS states that ‘practitioners must consider the individual needs, interests, and stage of development of each child in their care and must use this information to plan a challenging and enjoyable experience for each child in all of the areas of learning and development.’ (DFE, 2014) Planning should also be carried out with way throughout key stages 1 and 2; a successful school should create a primary curriculum that is totally personalised to the contexts of individual schools and students, dynamic not static, and responsive not to politics but to their communities’ needs (National College for School Leadership, 2011).
However, there is tension in the early years that planning based on children’s needs and abilities is incredibly difficult when there is a heavy structured curriculum to be taught (Fisher, 2008, Aubrey, 2014) ‘The introduction of the EYFS has done little to assure concerns of statutory obligations and the need to follow a curriculum, rather than focusing on child-centred planning’ (Fisher, 2008). For example, teachers may focus on aspects of the curriculum, such as planning to meet ELGs or Key Stage 1 Statutory Requirements, rather than focusing on planning for children’s interests. After all, the Primary National Curriculum states that ‘by the end of each key stage, pupils are expected to know, apply and understand the matters, skills and processes specified in the relevant programme of study’ (DFE, 2013). Research shows that this is a major issue in the National Curriculum, in which provision is often shaped by national requirements. This has led to a narrow concept of a valued curriculum which considers children’s interests and needs, therefore reinforcing shallow teaching and learning practise, i.e. teaching to the test (Boyle and Bragg, 2006). Despite this, research shows that planning around children’s interests and needs ensures better overall performance in all subjects, and it is recommended that this form of planning should be adapted in all the key stages, rather than being confined to the early school years (Walsh, et al, 2010). This therefore shows that assessing for learning and then planning based on children’s needs and interests has a positive impact on children’s development and learning and provides better support for individual children’s needs.
Assessment of Learning
Assessment of learning, which happens at the end of the cycle, is also an important part of the planning, teaching and assessment process; it provides an opportunity to review what a child has learned and to assess the progress they have made (Fisher, 2008; Briggs, et al, 2008; DCSF, 2007; Griffin, 2007). It enables the teacher to determine what level the child is working at and what skills and knowledge they have attained. As a result of this, the teacher can plan learning experiences that enhance their development and build on previous skills, promoting progression and continuity of learning. Assessment of learning is also essential so that the teacher can fill any gaps in children’s knowledge or any misconceptions. One of the most accurate and powerful ways of gathering evidence of learning and understanding in the early years is interacting with children and observing them both during play and during planned learning experiences. (Briggs, et al, 2008; Fisher, 2008; Gipps, et al, 2008). This is because children at this age are often limited by their capacity to record or write down their understanding. This coincides with advice given to teachers in the 2018 Early Years Foundation Stage Guidance which states that ‘assessment involves practitioners observing children to understand their level of achievement’ and that paper-based assessments ‘should be limited to that which is absolutely necessary to promote children’s successful learning and development’ (DFE, 2018).
Despite this, there are a range of more formal, paper-based assessments that take place during the early years, one of the most controversial being the Phonics Screening Check which was introduced in 2012 as a way of assessing children’s phoneme-grapheme correspondence. Department for Education statistics reveal that ‘163,000 more 6-year-olds are on track to become fluent readers since the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012’ (DFE, 2018).However, a recent survey has found that ‘most heads (84 per cent) and teachers (88 per cent) think the phonics check should no longer be statutory for all pupils in Year 1’ and ‘just 6 per cent of teachers feel the phonics check provides them with new information on children’ (Ward, 2008).
This makes it clear that formal, statutory assessments are still a topic for discussion and dispute in the early years, and with the introduction of the new statutory baseline assessments to be undertaken by reception teachers starting in 2020 (Ward, 2019), it is clear that for now, like it or not, they are here to stay.