Five Steps to Assessing Child Outcomes

Measuring the developmental progress of children is a national effort. Head Start management and teaching teams can participate in the development of tools to measure progress. Reviewing the measurement system used by the Office of Early Childhood in the Ohio Department of Education provides guidance in this process.

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Introduction
Step 1 - Getting the Help You Need
Step 2 - Selecting an Assessment Instrument
Step 3 - Aligning Curriculum and Assessment for Continuous Improvement
Step 4 - Testing Your System
Step 5 - Ongoing Implementation and Problem Solving
Conclusion

Introduction

Three years ago the Ohio legislature mandated that all state-funded Head Start programs measure the progress of the children they serve using a common assessment instrument. The responsibility for designing the measurement system fell to the Office of Early Childhood in the Ohio Department of Education.

In Ohio, we are serving over 80 percent of the children who qualify for Head Start services. We are able to serve this many children due to gubernatorial and legislative support to expand state Head Start funding from less than $14 million per year in 1990 to over $100 million this year. Along with this funding came an underlying concern about accountability. Legislators began asking: How well are the children doing in the programs we fund? Did Head Start give children a head start? Did the children enter kindergarten better off than they would have been if they had not been enrolled? For a long time, we avoided addressing the "results" questions. We should have listened more carefully and reacted more quickly than we did. In 1996, one of the research arms of the Ohio State Legislature conducted a study that found little positive evidence of the impact of Head Start on children's literacy and social competency skills. We had very little information to refute the findings.

The handwriting was on the wall. We had to put a system in place that would provide the data to demonstrate the impact of Head Start on children. At the same time, we determined that we were also going to include our public preschool programs and preschool special education services in our outcomes system. This meant that, eventually, we would be collecting data for approximately 80,000 children in over five hundred local programs.

The system we developed is based on the Measurement and Planning System (MAPS) child assessment section of the Galileo software application. Teachers collect observational data on children's work in the areas of language and literacy, early math, social development, self help, and nature and science and enter the information into a computer. Data are collected at the beginning of the year to document skills the children have at entry. Teachers update the information as the year progresses and then enter data at the end of the year. This system gives teachers, parents, administrators, and legislators a comprehensive picture of the progress children are making over time in their early childhood program.

The purpose of this article is to describe the five key steps we took in Ohio to set up this assessment system. We believe our experience can help local Head Start grantees as they plan for and implement requirements from the Head Start Bureau to gather, analyze, and use information on child outcomes in new ways.

Step 1 Getting the Help You Need

It would be a big mistake to enter into the task of starting an outcomes measurement system thinking that you have all of the answers. Asking for help maximizes the potential for positive consequences and minimizes the potential for negative consequences. So, deciding who to ask, how to ask, and what to ask is an important part of this process.

Some of the best help we got was by reading books and articles on assessment. A key message from our reading was to be clear on the purposes for assessment and to be sure the system serves those purposes. Thus, before we did anything else, we decided our two central purposes were to report on the overall levels of progress of children in Head Start in Ohio, and to provide assessment information that would be useful to teachers. That is, we wanted our new statewide system to reinforce what good teachers were already doing on a daily basis observing and assessing children's progress to help make instructional decisions. Finding out what a child knows and is able to do helps teachers plan new experiences to advance learning. We wanted the assessment to fit into these daily routines, to provide a common approach to documenting progress of children, and to assist teachers in promoting progress.

A second major source of help in our planning was to draw on several stakeholder groups to help design our system. We convened a series of discussion sessions with groups including legislators, advocates, program directors, staff, parents, and state department staff particularly those with expertise in assessment and information technology. Each group was asked the same question, "What outcomes do you expect from a quality early childhood program?"

Next, we held a synthesis meeting with representatives from each group of stakeholders to get a consensus on the final child outcomes and to begin developing a continuous improvement system for measuring and using outcome data. The synthesis meeting was scheduled for two days, but into the second day, we were still not agreeing on much. We were sensing resistance or reluctance from some Head Start staff members. Finally, one Head Start Director, Mary Hodge from Toledo, stood up, faced the group, and asked, "Why is this so difficult? We are talking about our bragging rights! Our early childhood programs work and we are deciding which of these outcomes we want to brag about! These are indicators of our successes!" Thus, the project was and will forever be called the Indicators of Success Project (although our personal preference was to call it the Early Childhood Bragging Rights Project!)

In addition to reviewing literature on assessment and conducting our public engagement strategy, we also sought as much technical assistance as we could find. For instance, we attended a meeting hosted by the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance System with other states that were wrestling with early childhood program outcome measures. This meeting helped us in conceptualizing an outcomes-based continuous improvement system for programs in our state.

Our advice is to get help from the beginning of your planning and decision-making process. We learned valuable things from reading, widespread involvement of stakeholder groups, and technical assistance services. The people and resources you identify may be different from those we used. Starting with the purposes of your child outcomes effort, we urge you to seek out help from experts and involve the people who will implement and use your child assessment system.

Step 2 Selecting an Assessment Instrument

Once we had agreement on the purposes of our assessment initiative and the content areas of child outcomes, we began to work on selecting an assessment instrument for programs to use on a statewide basis. We worked with our stakeholder groups and experts to develop a set of criteria for choosing an assessment instrument. The full set of criteria looked like this

Purpose of Assessment

  • Provide information to stakeholders about expectations
  • Be useful to teachers for planning instruction
  • Be useful to administrators for improving programs
  • Identify children who may require special interventions
  • Track child progress toward fourth grade curricula outcomes
  • Provide information for program accountability

Early Childhood Values

  • Collect data by observing children in a natural setting
  • Used with children from birth to age eight all ability levels
  • Categorize observations in content areas and developmental domains

Technical Requirements

  • Provide data on individual children that can be aggregated at the classroom, program, and state levels
  • Provide descriptive statistics and gain scores
  • Available in computerized and paper formats
  • Compatible with the State of Ohio Education Management Information System

After an extensive review, we found the MAPS section of the Galileo software application most appropriate, given our criteria. Many local Head Start agencies are currently reviewing their assessment instrument and evaluating other options, based on the new Head Start Child Outcomes Framework. As you look around to decide how to measure outcomes, we recommend developing a set of criteria, based on input from staff and other knowledgeable people, to guide your decision-making.

Step 3 Aligning Curriculum and Assessment for Continuous Improvement

Once we had selected the MAPS assessment system, we turned our attention to connecting the assessment effort with curriculum in local Head Start and preschool programs. We began by "Ohio-izing" the MAPS assessment scales so that they directly measure the Ohio Department of Education's goals and expectations for preschool curricula. Then staff members from the Office of Early Childhood Education traveled around the state working with programs to align their curricula with the expectations.

Local programs worked to compare their curricula with the MAPS assessment framework. They reviewed their formal packaged curricula, and, in a number of programs, also convened work groups to analyze teachers' actual lesson plans to determine whether what goes on in the classrooms reflects the comprehensive scope of the outcomes they are hoping to achieve. Essentially, they are asking, "Are we providing the learning experiences to help our children reach the outcomes set forth for Head Start programs in Ohio?"

Two issues surfaced. First, some curricula did not adequately address all of the areas of child outcomes included in the MAPS assessment framework. Mathematics learning was the area most commonly found to be inadequately addressed in local curricula. The second issue was the reverse some curricula addressed outcomes that were not measured by the Ohio outcomes system. For example, one of our programs, Miami Valley Child Development Centers, has made a significant investment to implement the High Scope curriculum. Education staff carefully compared the High Scope curriculum with the outcomes measured in the MAPS assessment system. They found that the outcomes in science measured by the MAPS tool were more comprehensive than those in the High Scope curriculum. However, in the art, music and movement content areas, they found that the outcomes in the High Scope system were more comprehensive. (Art, music, and movement are not content areas for which the State of Ohio requires outcome measures.) Miami Valley decided to collect data required by the state of Ohio and information about the areas of art, music, and movement that they believe are important goals for children in their community.

Spending time to analyze information on child outcomes is worthwhile if it helps programs answer key questions like, "How are our children doing?" "Is what we are doing working?" and "How can we be even more effective in preparing children for school?" Making sure your curriculum and assessment systems are lined up with a common set of goals for children is crucial to answering these questions in useful ways. Then you can use information on children's progress to plan for continuous program improvement. It is also important to be sure that your curricula reflect the values and priorities of your staff, program managers, families, and community.

Step 4 Testing Your System

We knew that we had a lot to learn about how this assessment system would work for all of our programs. We decided to field test the system to be sure we were getting what we needed and that the system was not overly burdensome on our programs. Fifteen Head Start programs, three public school preschool and three preschool special education programs volunteered to participate in the field test.

The field test allowed us to try out approaches with a manageable number of motivated programs. They were our practice group for funding, technical assistance, training, implementation, and reporting. We convened another broad-based advisory committee of forty stakeholders to meet quarterly to receive updates and advise us on the policies and procedures. To evaluate our field test, we conducted focus groups, interviews, and surveys of teachers, education administrators, directors and parents. Results indicated that the teachers and administrators were satisfied with the system. They believed the system was useable, the items on the scales were meaningful and the system provided useful reports. Parents of children also said that the reports were useful and understandable.

We found some areas that needed improvement

  • Teachers and assistant teachers reported that they needed more training.
  • Teachers found that it was difficult to document progress using this system for children with very involved disabilities. For example, teachers of children diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder complained that their children would not be likely to show any improvement on the language scale assessment items in an entire year.
  • Teachers reported that they were concerned about the amount of time they spent on assessment. Teachers reported spending an average of 2.5 hours per week on assessment, although the amount of time decreased as they became familiar with the system.

To address the areas of need, revisions have been made in the frequency and type of training offered. In addition, a committee to support children with complex disabilities came together to design a system which will provide teachers with more finely differentiated information about the progress of their children.

We believe it is valuable for local agencies to test changes in ongoing child assessment and procedures for analyzing information on children's progress and accomplishments. Implementing new efforts in a limited set of classrooms and centers can uncover problems and help fine-tune your system, and contribute to more successful implementation.

Step 5 Ongoing Implementation and Problem Solving

This year, approximately 30,000 children are being assessed in the Indicators of Success Project. We have learned a lot over the last three years. We are continuing to work hard to build a system that will work for teachers and children during this period of rapid expansion and implementation. Our priorities focus on training, equipment, and continuing to communicate. We need to be sure that staff have the computers and training they need to use the system. To keep communication open, we set up committees on curriculum, the MAPS assessment scale, supporting children with complex disabilities, training, and technology.

One simple lesson we learned from implementing this project is that data on child outcomes at the beginning of each year are the most important and useful information to guide program improvement efforts. These data can help programs make better decisions in allocating resources, staff development, and technical assistance to improve the progress of children.

Another important lesson we learned is that when a system begins to hold programs accountable, teachers feel pressure to reach the specified outcomes. One program director reported that she observed her teachers walking around the room with clipboards documenting what was going on rather than facilitating learning. Another director told us that teachers were using "drill and kill" teaching strategies because they felt pressure to prepare children for state assessment efforts. We have communicated with teachers around the state, helping them understand that good instruction will be the deciding factor in improving child outcomes not good paperwork. To clarify our support for developmentally appropriate practices, we created a User's Manual with many, many examples of how to observe and foster progress on outcomes in a developmentally appropriate way.

Conclusion

The implementation of the Ohio child outcomes assessment system has depended on relationships. Thousands of individuals have walked these five steps with us. We have continued to develop close partnerships that hold us responsible for the goals we all have for children. We have gained consensus on what outcomes to assess and how to measure them. And we have begun to be better able to communicate the very real impact our programs have on the lives of children and families.

When will our indicators begin to indicate success? Our hard work to document progress is already paying off. One large urban district has been able to document significant progress on some meaningful indicators. In the fall, they reported that 24 percent of their Head Start children could name ten or fewer letters. In the spring, 62 percent were documented as having done so. In the fall, 8 percent of their children could name eleven or more letters; in the spring, 40 percent could. In the fall, one percent of the children could write using some complete words; by the spring, 15 percent could do so.

Probably the comment that makes us the most proud came from a parent working on a committee to adapt our system to fit children with complex disabilities. She said that she believed that what we are doing in this area is very important because the system is strengths-focused. Her son has a significant brain injury and during the development of his Individual Education Plan, the school psychologist had written "Not applicable" in the section used to list a child's strengths. She said, "You are giving them something to write in that section."

We are far from finished with the design of this system. In fact, we do not intend to reach a point of completion. As we use data on children's progress to guide further improvements in programs and classrooms, we will continue to strive towards higher and more meaningful goals.

Mary Lou Rush is the Interim Director at the Ohio Department of Education, Office of Early Childhood. T: 614-466-0224;
E: marylou.rush@ode.state.oh.us.

Dawn Denno is a consultant for the Ohio Department of Education, Office of Early Childhood. T: 513-874-1771;
E: ece_denno@ode.state.oh.us.

Edith Greer is an Assistant Director at the Ohio Department of Education, Office of Early Childhood. T: 330-364-5567;
E: ece_greer@ode.state.oh.us.

Ann Gradisher is an Assistant Director at the Ohio Department of Education, Office of Early Childhood. T: 330-220-6410;
E: ece_gradisher@ode.state.oh.us.

"Five Steps to Assessing Child Outcomes." Rush, Mary Lou, Denno, Dawn, Greer, Edith, and Gradisher, Ann. Screening & Assessment in Head Start. Head Start Bulletin #70. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2001. English.

Last Reviewed: November 2009

Last Updated: October 1, 2014