Proceedings of the New England Meeting of the State Child Indicators Projects: Forum on School Readiness and Child Care Indicators. Keynote Address: Sharon Lynn Kagan


Judith Jones, Clinical Professor of Public Health at Columbia University, introduced Sharon Lynn Kagan, who is Senior Associate at the Yale University Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy and President of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Kagan delivered the keynote address, "Assessing Young Children: Issues, Definitions, and Options." A summary of that address follows.


Assessment of young children is a high-stakes issue. Parents, legislators, and others want answers now.

Where Are We Now?

We are now marking the tenth anniversary of the National Educational Goals. One of these goals calls for a school-readiness standard. A decade after the call was issued an agreed-upon standard is not yet in place. Even without an agreed-upon readiness standard, assessment has been a part of the early childhood field for a decade and is increasing. Testing of preschoolers is in place in some areas and is coming to others. Test makers are in the process of developing instruments. Although early childhood professionals understand age and cultural appropriateness issues related to assessments, this understanding is not universal outside the field. There is a danger that data secured for one purpose may be applied to other, inappropriate purposes.

What Do We Need?

We currently lack clear definitions of what is appropriately assessed and what are appropriate assessment tools and measures.

Purposes of Assessment

There are many purposes for assessment. It can be used as a tool to

  • Improve learning and to identify what children know and are able to do
  • Identify children with special needs and provide services to them
  • Evaluate programs and monitor progress
  • Provide accountability by supplying information to make decisions and by demonstrating that investments have made improvements

Types of Assessment

Different types of assessments will measure different qualities. We should think about these types of assessment as we choose different indicators and try to include some that fit in each of the following four categories or "buckets." (Kagan’s bucket metaphor was adopted by meeting participants and employed frequently in subsequent discussions.)

Bucket 1: Child outcome assessments that measure things children know and can do. Children should be measured in five areas: physical well-being, social and emotional development, approaches toward learning, language development, and cognition and general knowledge.

Bucket 2: Conditions that surround children. Such aggregate indicators of child and family well-being might include information on parents’ ages, substance-abuse histories, or income levels.

Bucket 3: Delivery/program standards. This type of assessment is related to the availability, quality, and accessibility of services for children. Examples include the prevalence of high-quality childcare programs or the level of access pregnant woman have to prenatal care.

Bucket 4: Systemic performance assessment. Assessments of systems of services can address such issues as service efficiency, provider compensation, or the availability of training across programs.

Understanding the Importance of Child Outcomes

Although establishment of program standards and measurement of systemic performance provide important information, they tell us little about the progress of children and do not provide information to help improve programs in ways that result in better performance for children. For a long time, program input standards and Head Start standards have been used in place of measures of child results. Relying on these standards does not contribute to the improvement of program quality. Data around what children can be expected to know and do — the bucket 1 assessments — can be an "elixir of quality" for preschool programs. (There may be greater application for programs for older preschoolers than for infant and toddler programs.)

What is Our Strategy?

We need to develop consensus on a strategy for assessments that reflect the views of early childhood professionals. It is not essential for states to have a definition of school readiness. Instead, chronological age could be the definition of whether or not a child is ready for school if the goal is to make schools ready for all children.

We need to develop instruments that collect information on children over time and are appropriate for use by multiple providers to collect this information. If localities have too much input in the development of instruments, data may not be comparable across sites. We need to think systemically.

States and localities are in the forefront of this work. Connecticut and California are among the states that have developed statewide child indicators. They are holding localities accountable to these standards. Florida has recently passed legislation that aggregates funding streams at the state level and then gives the control of these resources to local governance. Florida is now developing an assessment system for accountability.

There is a tremendous need to assess what preschool kids can know and do. There is a need for a continuum of data as well; data collected in schools should include information on children’s preschool experiences.


Following her talk, Kagan entertained questions. Regarding assessment, Kagan said that making the case for assessment was critical to sustaining related enterprises, such as family preservation and family support programs. She noted the need to protect assessment data from misuse and to ensure that appropriate measures of context were incorporated into assessments.

Response Panel

A response panel composed of Deborah Benson of the New York State Council in Children and Families, David Murphey of Vermont Agency of Human Services, and Fredericka Wolman, M.D., of the Maine Department of Human Services, commented on the keynote address. Murphey addressed the issue of focusing on assessments of what children can know and do at particular developmental stages (bucket 1). Wolman noted Maine’s difficulty in creating simple indicators to describe very complex situations. Benson said that she was unconvinced the public has embraced the notion that society has responsibility for children’s education before they enter school.