Schools in Boston also use a multifaceted approach to assessment. The state of Massachusetts has developed its own test, and the district uses a commercial test. In addition, schools have developed parallel assessments. One elementary school, for example, begins each September by assessing every student, from early childhood to grade 5, using a variety of methods: observation for young children (through grade 2), running records, writing samples. They repeat the running records and writing samples every four to six weeks. They examine the data in January and again in June to determine the children's progress. In that way, every teacher can tell you how her students are doing at any point. Teachers can adjust their instructional practices accordingly, and principals have a clear picture of how each classroom is performing. The district and state tests, meanwhile, provide an estimate of each school's performance for policy makers.
The 1994 Title I statute poses a problem for educators and policy makers interested in determining the progress of large numbers of disadvantaged students. Although 49 percent of children served by the program are in grades 3 and below, the law does not require states to establish assessments before grade 3. Without some form of assessment, schools and districts would have no way of determining the progress of this large group of students.
The law's emphasis on testing in grade 3 and above followed practice in the states, many of which have in recent years reduced their use of tests in the early grades. Only 5 states test students in grade 2; 3 test in grade 1; and 2 test in kindergarten (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1998).
The federal and state actions reflect their responses to the arguments of early childhood educators. These educators have long been committed to the ongoing assessment of young children for the purpose of instructional improvement. Indeed, ongoing assessment of children in their natural settings is part and parcel of high-quality early childhood educators' training. However, early childhood educators have raised serious questions about the use of tests for accountability purposes in the early grades, particularly tests used for making decisions about student tracking and promotion.
The press for accountability in education generally, along with the increasing emphasis on the early years, has brought the issue of early childhood assessment to the fore. Among state and district policy makers, the question of how best to assess and test young children, and how to do so in ways that are appropriate and productive, remains an issue of great concern and debate.