Assessing the knowledge and skills of children younger than age 8 poses many of the same problems as assessments of older children, as well as posing some unique problems. Like tests for older children, tests for young children should be appropriate to the purpose for which they are used, and they must support whatever inferences are drawn from the results.
The National Education Goals Panel's Goal 1 Early Childhood Assessment Resource Group (Shepard et al., 1998a) identified four purposes for assessment of children before age 8, each of which demands its own method and instrumentation. The four purposes are:
Instructional Improvement. Measures aimed at supporting teaching and learning are designed to inform students, parents, and teachers about student progress and development and to identify areas in which further instruction is needed. Such measures may include direct observations of children during classroom activities; evaluation of samples of work; asking questions orally; and asking informed adults about the child.
Identification for Special Needs. Measures aimed at identifying special problems inform parents, teachers, and specialists about the possible existence of physical or learning disabilities that may require services beyond those provided in a regular classroom.
Program Evaluation. Measures aimed at evaluating programs inform parents, policy makers, and the public about trends in student performance and the effectiveness of educational programs.
Accountability. Measures to hold individuals, teachers, or schools accountable for performance inform parents, policy makers, and the public about the extent to which students and schools are meeting external standards for performance.
In practice, however, tests for young children have been used for purposes for which they were not intended, and, as a result, inferences about children's abilities or the quality of early childhood education programs have been erroneous, sometimes with harmful effects (Shepard, 1994). For example, schools have used test results to retain children in grade, despite evidence that retention does not improve academic performance and could increase the likelihood that children will drop out of school. In addition, schools have also used tests to put students into academic tracks prematurely and inappropriately (National Research Council, 1999a).
These problems have been exacerbated by the type of assessments typically