ERIC Identifier: ED389964
Publication Date: 1995-00-00
Author: Vacc, Nicholas A. - Ritter, Sandra H.
Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services Greensboro NC.
Assessment of Preschool Children. ERIC Digest.
With the enactment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL
94-142) of 1975 and its amendments (PL-99-457 of 1986 and PL 101-476 of 1990),
all children are entitled to appropriate free education and related services
regardless of disabilities. As a result, major strides have been made toward
providing services for developmentally delayed children. These services include
transportation, case management, family training and counseling, home visits for
counseling, health services, medical services for diagnostic purposes, nursing
services, nutrition services, occupational therapy, physical therapy,
psychological services, social-work services, special classroom instruction,
adapted physical education, audiology, and speech-language pathology. To gain
access to these services, children who are suspected of having developmental or
physical disabilities have to be referred to trained and qualified individuals
or multi-disciplinary teams for assessment in cognitive, physical, language and
speech, psychosocial, and self-help areas.
Young children, however, are difficult subjects to assess accurately because
of their activity level and distractibility, shorter attention span, wariness of
strangers, and inconsistent performance in unfamiliar environments. Other
factors that may affect a child's performance include cultural differences and
language barriers, parents not having books to read to their child and a child's
lack of interaction with other children. Consequently, assessment of infants,
toddlers, and young children requires sensitivity to the child's background, and
knowledge of testing limitations and procedures with young children.
Assessment, differentiated from test
administration and interpretation, is usually a comprehensive process of
gathering information about a child across developmental areas. Benner (1992)
reported several continua along which assessments fall: (a) norm-referenced to
criterion-referenced, product oriented to process oriented assessment; (b)
formal to informal assessment, direct to indirect assessment; (c) standardized
tests to handicap-accommodating tests; and (d) single-discipline approach to
team approach. The present trend in preschool assessment is toward the latter
perspective of each continuum with strengths being emphasized rather than
Thus, current trends in preschool assessment include a move away from a
"single assessor" model to an environmental model which is designed for the
individual child. Through a team approach, children are evaluated with family
members present, and factors of the home and social environment are taken into
consideration. Because of the increased situation-specificity of developmental
tests, which can be administered by professionals other than practicing
psychologists, their use is increasing (Niemeyer, J. A., personal communication,
August 19, 1994).
It has been recommended that norm-referenced tests, such as intelligence
tests which historically have been used as a measure of ability and as an
entrance criterion for programs such as Head Start, be replaced with assessments
based on multiple theoretical perspectives (Niemeyer, J. A. personal
communication, August 19, 1994). A more holistic evaluation of the child can be
obtained by integrating tests of cognitive ability with other measures such as
assessment of social and motor skills development.
CHARACTERISTICS OF PRESCHOOL ASSESSMENT
appropriate interventions at the preschool level, there is less focus on testing
and more on evaluating the individual child. Some of the more important
characteristics are as follows:
CRITERION REFERENCED AND PROCESS
Criterion-referenced tests allow each child to be assessed as an
individual. Comparing the child with developmental milestones and selecting
areas to reinforce allows interventions to be specifically tailored to a child.
Attention is given to the process of the interacti ons (i.e., whether the
assessment is being conducted in a way that optimizes the child's demonstration
INFORMAL, INDIRECT, AND NATURALISTIC EVALUATIONS
relaxed settings where the child can be as much at ease as possible are
recommended when doing assessment. Assessing a child within the context of his
or her community and the interacting social systems, and taking into account the
family's needs, resources, and concerns affect both the evaluation and possible
interventions. One of the most important developments in this area is
Trans-disciplinary Playbased Assessment (Linder, 1993), during which the child
engages in play with a familiar person and the interactions of the child with
the adult are observed by a team. The assessment is constructed so that the team
can communicate with the play facilitator concerning unobserved skills (e.g.,
can the child stack three blocks). The combination of informal play-based
assessment and more directed and structured activities provides greater
opportunity for a high level of performance (Bagnato & Neisworth, 1994).
HANDICAP ACCOMMODATING ASSESSMENTS
procedures present problems when a child has a handicap that impedes test
performance even though the area being examined is not related to the handicap.
Attention is being directed toward developing assessment procedures that
accommodate for handicaps and provide a more accurate evaluation of the child.
single discipline evaluations provide a "snapshot" from a limited perspective,
assessments involving more than one discipline are recommended. Options include
multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, and trans-disciplinary assessments.
Multi-disciplinary teams are based on the medical model where many disciplines
evaluate individually and provide reports to a central figure.
Inter-disciplinary team members assess the child individually and then convene
to discuss findings and form joint recommendations. With a trans-disciplinary
team, representation of all disciplines that are needed for a child (e.g.,
occupational therapy, speech therapy, medical doctor, nutritionist) are present,
and the child is observed and discussed by all at the same time, thus providing
an evaluation of the total child.
THE ROLE OF MENTAL HEALTH PRACTITIONERS
methods for preschool assessment are designed to be convenient for both the
assessors and the families, and to have all individuals involved with a child
participate directly in the evaluation process. Improvement is fostered when a
holistic concept of the child is provided through a multi-disciplinary or
trans-disciplinary assessment that is part of a larger set of conditions which
promote change, such as family system interventions (AAHE, 1992). In many
instances, the mental health practitioners (e.g., counselors) will not be
directly involved in the test administration, but will work with the family
during the process. In particular, mental health practitioners can provide
information on testing, legal requirements, and the merits and limitations of
preschool assessment methods. It is helpful for the parents to know that the
principles of good assessment practice reflect a multi-dimensional, integrated
understanding of learning, explicitly stated purposes, experiences that lead to
results, and continuous intervention and re-evaluation. Mental health
practitioners who are actively involved as part of the assessment team
evaluating a referred child need to be familiar with the different assessment
methods and their limitations, as well as current assessment trends and the
reasoning behind them. This is especially important given that as few as 10% of
tests administered to preschool children have been reported as appropriate to
screen that population (Wortham, 1990). If mental health practitioners are not
participants in the assessment process but are in the position of working with a
child or the family after an assessment has been completed and a referral has
been made, they need to evaluate whether the instruments employed, the
assessment environment, and the way in which the evaluation was administered
were appropriate for the particular child.
Major changes in the level of interest and
evaluation methods employed in preschool assessment have occurred in the past
decade. The current trend is toward an ecological, child-centered approach which
includes trans- or multi-disciplinary evaluations. Such approaches evaluate the "total child" rather than a specific area.
American Association for Higher Education
(1992). Principles of good practice for assessing student learning. Washington,
Bagnato, S. J. & Neisworth, J. J. (1994). A national study of the social
and treatment "invalidity" of intelligence testing for early intervention.
School Psychology Quarterly, 9(2), pp. 81-102.
Benner, S. M. (1992). Assessing young children with special needs: An
ecological perspective. New York: Longman.
Linder, T. W. (1993). Transdisciplinary Play-based Assessment: A functional
approach to working with young children. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
Wortham, S. C. (1990). Test and measurement in early childhood education.
Columbus, OH: Merrill.