PART 3: Introducing assessment practices


    In Part 3, we focus on assessment practices in early childhood education, looking at some broad principles for early childhood assessment and the practices that support these principles. In the next part of the course, we will explore in more depth one possible approach to early childhood assessment – the learning story. Again, you will find readings, videos and opportunities for reflection, as well as a chance to relate your learning to practice.

    In this part, we aim to help you:

    • Understand the key principles underlying good assessment practice in early childhood education in New Zealand
    • Consider the principles of high quality assessment for ECE in relation to your own practice
    • Develop an understanding of curriculum priorities in your own setting 

    This will involve: 

    1. Reading about principles for assessment in early childhood
    2. Reflecting on how the principles of Te Whāriki might inform assessment
    3. Reading about what to assess
    4. Relating your learning to practice by engaging in a reflective conversation with a colleague 
    5. Watching a video in which Sue Cherrington explores a range of different kinds of assessment and their links to learning

    Revisit your learning so far

    What are some of the actions an intentional teacher might take to further children’s learning, and why are these important? 

    Intentional teachers might plan to observe children further, organise the physical environment, offer challenges, plan interactions, participate in play, and model, demonstrate, direct, or instruct children in learning new skills.

    These are important because unsupported free play is not always sufficient for enabling learning. Specific strategies for teacher support and intervention in learning such as scaffolding and sustained shared thinking are associated with greater learning in the early years.


    Read ‘What is assessment in early childhood education?’ and think about the potential links between assessment in early childhood education and the practice of intentional teaching. 

    What is assessment in early childhood education?

    Assessment can be defined as ‘the ways in which, in our everyday practice, we observe children’s learning, strive to understand it, and then put our understanding to good use’ (Drummond, 1993, p. 13). Assessment in early childhood education (ECE) plays an important role in supporting positive outcomes for children by informing what is taught and how. Research shows that ECE that uses effective and appropriate assessment is an important contributing factor to children’s success in future learning and education.

    Assessment in ECE serves multiple purposes, including:

    • enhancing children’s learning and development, through giving feedback, and enabling teachers to extend their knowledge, skills and achievements
    • documenting the learning that has occurred and creating summative accounts of progress
    • evaluating and improving pedagogies and practices, and the programme
    • analysing and improving the physical environment
    • appraising and improving teacher-child and peer interactions
    • enhancing relationships with families and whānau
    • identifying children who need additional support.

    Usually assessment should be formative – used to influence learning in the immediate future. However, summative accounts – informing children, families and others about children’s learning and progress over time – can be useful for transition processes.

    Formative assessment can be formal or informal. Informal assessment occurs in the moment as teachers observe, listen and participate in experiences with children. It informs teachers’ responses, in terms of their actions or changes, and helps children reach immediate and long-term goals. Formal assessment involves recording observations for further analysis and reflection, as well as to create a record over time. It enables teachers to identify changes in children’s interests and capabilities, and consider longer-term plans and strategies to support these. Both formal and informal observations and assessments are used to plan programmes and activities that allow children to develop their interests in a child-initiated context.

    Kei Tua o te Pae and Te Whatu Pōkeka are assessment frameworks consistent with the ECE curriculum document Te Whāriki.

    Principles for assessment in early childhood

    Te Whāriki offers clarification on the purposes and strategies for assessment in early childhood. It recommends a strong focus on formative feedback, as well as alignment with the four principles that underpin the curriculum document. This means assessment should:

    1. Enhance the mana of the child, and the child’s sense of him or herself as a capable person and competent learner (Empowerment / Whakamana principle)

    This means teachers need to recognise children’s individual strengths and abilities, and notice and respond to their initiatives.

    2. Take account of the whole child and reflect the holistic way in which children learn, based on the context of children’s activities and relationships (Holistic development / Kotahitanga principle)

    This means teachers need to draw on their wide knowledge of each child when interpreting, and invite families to contribute knowledge of children’s capabilities at home and in other settings. As learning is influenced by the environment and by relationships between children and teachers, these should be recognised.

    3. Include families and whānau (Family and Community / Whānau Tangata principle)

    Assessment should be a social practice where teachers, children, parents and whānau engage together in assessment and the planning based on it. Te Whāriki suggests that assessment takes place within a learning community that co-analyses children’s activity, and co-constructs goals. Rather than the one-way relations in which teachers report progress and learning to families and children, this involves the sharing of power to make assessment and planning decisions.

    4. Recognise the people, places and things that support children’s learning (Relationships / Ngā Hohonga principle)

    This means children’s learning should be assessed in context, and assessment documentation should reflect the social contexts in which children are learning. It will involve giving meaningful descriptions of the environment and the people and objects in it that influence learning, as well as taking account of the children’s cultural contexts.

    The socially constructed nature of learning and assessment

    ECE teachers play an important role in documenting children’s knowledge and activity in photos, recordings, and written accounts which can then be analysed, scrutinised and reflected upon. This means that ‘epistemically responsible assessment’ (where teachers carefully consider why they choose to assess what they do, how they make judgements, how they know, and what they do with what they know) is important. Teachers should recognise their personal contexts, histories and cultures that influence their interpretations of, and plans for, learning, and be open to alternative perspectives and vocabularies for describing learning that might open up their thinking around children’s learning, rather than attempt to provide a singular and objective truth about their capabilities.

    Multiple interpretations of children’s learning can also better reflect the way in which the development of capabilities in early childhood is often unpredictable and fluctuating, and entwined with children’s social contexts and relationships. 


    Reflect on the following question and write a personal response: 

    How confident do you feel to enact the principles of Te Whāriki, (Empowerment/ Whakamana, Holistic development / Kotahitanga, Family and Community / Whānau Tangata, or Relationships / Ngā Hohonga) in your assessment documentation? For example, how confident are you that your current assessment practice:

    1. protects and enhances the mana of the child? (principle of Empowerment / Whakamana) 
    2. takes account of the multiple contexts and activities in which children live and learn? (principle of Holistic Development / Kotahitanga) 
    3. effectively includes family and community perspectives? (principle of Family and Community / Whānau Tangata) 
    4. recognises the role of relationships with people, places and things in children’s learning? (principle of Relationships / Ngā Hohonga).


    Continue reading from ‘What is assessment in early childhood education?’ with this short section on what to assess. As you read, think about how what is assessed depends on the aims and aspirations of teachers and parents. 

    What to assess

    In early childhood, progress in learning develops when attention is paid to children’s strengths, interests and dispositions. The aim is to use assessment to recognise and build upon existing behaviours in a wider and deeper range of contexts. This means focusing on children’s developing knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions as related to Te Whāriki’s strands and learning outcomes, with a particular focus on positive learning dispositions such as courage, curiosity, trust, playfulness, perseverance, confidence and responsibility. Dispositions are considered very important for early childhood learning skills. Dispositions describe being ready and willing to learn. For example, there is a big difference between being able to read and being disposed to read (being ready and willing and having the disposition to be a reader). Positive learning dispositions are essential to the cultivation of effective learning skills.

    Also important are the dispositional behaviours that children display for approaching learning; for example: taking an interest, being involved, persisting with difficulty and uncertainty, taking risks, asking for help, expressing a point of view or sharing knowledge. The acquisition of skills and knowledge provide the context for practising the deeper learning associated with dispositions. As children approach transition to school, a greater emphasis on literacy and mathematical concepts, and self-management skills can be useful.

    Remember that what is assessed reflects what is valued, by teachers, families, and learners themselves.

    The full resource “What is assessment in early childhood education?” can be accessed here, and is available to you at any time.

    Relate your learning to practice

    Think about your local curriculum, or the curriculum goals and strands that you, your early childhood setting, whānau and community value most for the children you serve, so you can begin to determine what to assess in your context. Find a colleague (someone you trust who will both challenge and support your thinking would be ideal), and use the questions below as the basis for a reflective conversation. To support your conversation, it might be helpful to print out the questions.

    1. What are the curriculum priorities of your setting, and how is this informed by Te Whāriki
    2. What does this mean for assessment? 
    3. How will this work for diverse children? What is the relationship between your setting’s curriculum priorities and those of individual children and families?

    Watch a video

    In this video, Sue Cherrington discusses a range of different kinds of assessment and their connection to learning.

    Sue refers to a range of assessment techniques that might be useful to teachers. You are probably well aware of the possibilities of video recording (even if you hadn’t previously considered having children wear a GoPro camera). Sue also suggests traditional observation techniques might be helpful. By ‘traditional’, she means techniques such as running records (where you write a list of everything the child says and does in a 5 or 10-minute period) or time sampling (where you write down where the child is playing and with what, at 10-minute intervals across a morning or afternoon).

    What are the purposes of assessment in early childhood education?

    Primarily, assessment for learning. So, to support teachers and families and whānau to be able to know where children are at the moment and where some next learning steps and what some possibilities for next learning steps are. So, we are much less interested in summative assessment, of what children can already do, but more formative assessment about where we might go with this learning. So, that's primarily the main reason.

    How does assessment feed into intentional teaching?

    So, when we when we assess children's learning, when we gather data, we gather information about children’s learning, we are able to then use that to inform our thinking about those next steps. We've got ideas about what's working for children, about possibilities where we may go with children and what they're learning, and we can move it on because we've got a base really to go from.

    Research, the projects that I've been involved in with colleagues, what we've found is that whenever teachers have been given support with gathering information through a range of assessment approaches, they take that information and they use that to inform their planning and informing intentional teaching.

    What kinds of assessment activities could teachers be using to inform their intentional teaching?

    Most familiar is obviously learning stories within the New Zealand context. But I think it's really important that we think also about other approaches. So video is really, really powerful. Both video of what's happening for children but also video of teachers. Little GoPros, we've had children wearing GoPros. Research that we've done, you can put a little camera on the bookshelf. And teachers often get some really powerful insights into children's thinking, what matters to them, their interactions with others that occur outside those episodes when teachers are there.  

    They also, when they [teachers] video record themselves, they get really strong insights into their own practice. Some potentials for strengthening but also recognition of the things that have really worked for them.

    There is a whole suite of what are often seen as more traditional observation techniques. And sometimes people feel a little uncomfortable about using them these days. My stance would be very much that they are other tools that we can use to support us to gather information about children's curriculum experiences, their interactions and engagement with others – whether it's adults or peers – the types of play that they may be engaged in, where they spend their time. And they can be really, really powerful tools for us to think about what's happening for both individuals and for groups of children in our centres and services.

    And then the last set is probably more in terms of internal evaluation than assessment per se, but things like rating scales. Like the sustained shared thinking and emotional wellbeing rating scale or the ECERS early childhood rating scale or the new self-assessment tool in the social and emotional resource that the Ministry has recently put out. Tools that teachers can use to look at their practice and the strategies that they're using that then feeds into intentional teaching. 

    I think the most important thing I'd say about different assessment tools is that it actually doesn't matter so much what you use, it's how you use it. You know that you gather information and it's then you need to use that information for good not for harm. You know, any tool can be used in ways that are supportive of children's learning and good. Any tool can also be used in ways that may do harm. And it's about the ways in which teachers use those tools that's the most important.

    How can teachers benefit from collaborating with their team around assessment?

    There is enormous power out of teachers finding ways in which they can talk about the information that they've got rather than doing it individually. And you know, I do appreciate that there's really challenging times for teachers in terms of creating their space in that time. But I think if we are really thoughtful about how do we use those short periods of time that we have as a team, let's use it for the stuff that's really important, which is how you know what's happening for children in terms of their curriculum experiences and their learning and how can we strengthen what we're doing. And we can deal with the other kind of administrative stuff in other kind of ways.

    How can links be developed between an ECE centre and parents and whānau through assessment? 

    I think one of the things that we know about using other types of assessment is that teachers that we've worked with who have been using some of those different types of assessments have found that their learning stories have been strengthened as a result. Primarily because they've got more information than they would have gained and that they've drawn on when they've been writing their learning stories. So, it's broadened and deepened their knowledge, which makes the learning stories more authentic. 

    How can different types of assessment be brought together to inform a learning story?

    It's a bit like thinking about theory in early childhood. There's not yet one theory that encapsulates all that we need to know about how to support children's learning and development. And our role as teachers, we know early childhood teachers draw on multiple theoretical positions to help inform their practice. The same thing happens with assessment. If we are open to drawing on multiple tools, then we widen the possibilities for the type of information that we gain, and again back to how we use it. If we use it carefully and we integrate it, and we are working closely with family and whānau and sharing that information and getting their perspectives and their views on what's happening not only in our service but what's happening for children at home, then we build this really rich picture that then informs where to next in terms of both children’s learning and our practice and our intentional teaching.


    What kinds of assessment formats do you use in your centre? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of these formats?


    The main points to take away from this part are:

    • Using effective assessment approaches contributes to children’s success in future learning.
    • The purposes of assessment in ECE include:
      • to plan extensions of children’s learning, 
      • to document progress
      • to evaluate and improve pedagogy, programmes, environments and interactions, 
      • to improve relationships with families and whānau, and 
      • to identify children needing additional support
    • The principles of Te Whāriki inform quality assessment practice. Quality practice in assessment:
      • enhances the child’s mana and sense of competence (Empowerment / Whakamana), 
      • reflects the holistic way in which children learn (Holistic development / Kotahitanga), 
      • includes families and whānau (Family and Community / Whānau Tangata) and 
      • recognises the people, places and things that support children’s learning (Relationships / Ngā Hohonga)
    • Personal contexts, histories and cultures influence interpretations of and plans for learning. This means multiple interpretations and narratives are important for opening up our thinking about children’s learning, and for reflecting the unpredictable and fluctuating nature of learning at this stage.
    • Developing an understanding of local priorities for curriculum and assessment that are appropriate to your community’s context and values is the first step towards an intentional approach to teaching and assessment.
    • Using multiple tools to assess children, such as video as well as traditional observation techniques (“running” records or time-sampling) widens the possibilities for the type of information we gain about children’s learning. This information can broaden and deepen learning stories and make them more authentic.

    Further reading

    Read this general overview of the principles underpinning assessment in New Zealand’s education systems by Associate Professor Alison Gilmore, who introduces the idea of New Zealand’s education system as an ‘education system that learns’.

    For a more practical example of how one centre operationalises their local curriculum in accordance with their identified values and desired learning outcomes, see here and here.

    Also read the guide to assessment in Te Whāriki, pp. 63-4. If you’re not familiar with New Zealand’s early childhood curriculum, see our guide here.