Assessments Are Like Shoes: The Purpose and Types of Early Childhood Assessments 

For early childhood practitioners to successfully navigate the evaluation terrain, they must remember that “assessments are like shoes.” Choose your evaluation shoes with care, know when and why to wear each pair, and always be prepared. 

by Allison Kimble-Cusano, EdD, ICS Research Specialist

Assessments Are Like Shoes 

“Assessments are like shoes.” This is the phrase that popped into my head and, subsequently, out of my mouth during a recent meeting. I was teaching doctoral students about the purpose and types of assessments. The students looked at me, perplexed, waiting for what would follow. I told them the following story: 

While packing for this trip, my four-year-old wandered into my room. He looked around at the piles of clothes on the bed and then poked his nose into my suitcase. He looked confused, “Why did you pack so many shoes, Mommy?”, he asked. I looked toward my suitcase, the contents now spilling out onto the floor. “Well,” I said, “I always like to be prepared. I bring slippers for getting ready, sneakers for exercising, flat shoes for walking around at meetings, high heels for presenting, and boots just in case.” “Cool,” he said, now wearing my heels and waddling through my bedroom, “like I wear sneakers on gym day, crocs in the backyard, and water shoes at the beach!” “Just like that,” I said. With that, he stepped out of my shoes and scampered off to find his siblings.  

Just how are shoes and early childhood assessments related? What on earth does packing have to do with the purpose and types of assessments? To find out, we must take a walk in my metaphorical shoes.  

Dress for the occasion: The purpose of the evaluation 

The five pairs of shoes in my suitcase each had a specific purpose. The slippers were for getting ready, the sneakers were for exercising, the heels for presenting, the flats for meetings, and the boots were “just in case.” Early childhood evaluators are met with a similar task when choosing a measure. Is the measure for program evaluation or to monitor individual student progress? Is it intended to be diagnostic or administered as a screening tool? Will the results be used to inform policy or to inform treatment or instruction? Once evaluators identify the purpose of the evaluation, they must consider the type of assessment that fulfills this objective.  

There are four broad categories of assessment: screening, formative, summative, and diagnostic. These categories, like the shoes in my suitcase, are best suited to specific measurement needs and scenarios.  

Slippers: Screening 

I wear my slippers to get ready for my day. My slippers keep me comfortable as I make coffee, pack lunches, eat breakfast, and get dressed. Just before I leave the house, I change into my “formal” footwear. Like my slippers, screening measures are for “getting ready.” Early childhood practitioners use screenings to identify individuals who need more in-depth evaluation, need additional support, or are at-risk for an educational, motor, neurological, or psychological disability. Screening tools inform treatment and/or instruction as well as future evaluation decisions and recommendations. 

Sneakers: Formative Evaluation 

Formative evaluation is typically used to provide feedback or guide treatment and/or instruction. Like the sneakers in my suitcase, formative evaluations are often viewed as casual or low stakes, but their importance cannot be understated. Formative assessments are on-going and may be used to set treatment or learning goals, identify strategies, modifications, and/or accommodations to support growth, or to identify learning gaps which are added to programming. Outcomes from formative evaluations are translated almost immediately into practice. In short, like my sneakers, formative evaluation appears casual, gets continuous use, and informs early childhood practice “where the rubber meets the road.”  

Heels: Summative Evaluation 

Summative assessments are evaluative and often measured against a specific standard or benchmark. They are often used to monitor program effectiveness or student outcomes and inform policy. Like my heels, summative evaluations can be high stakes. Kindergarten entry assessments and program effectiveness measures, for example, can have long-term repercussions for individual children or early childhood programs and practitioners. Walking in heels requires balance and coordination, and summative evaluations should be similarly balanced using data from other forms of evaluation.  

Flats: Diagnostic Evaluation 

In early childhood, diagnostic evaluation typically refers to the assessments administered by mental health providers, doctors, early interventionists, special educators, counselors and/or researchers. These evaluations are often used to identify a child or caregiver with an educational, motor, neurological, or psychological disability. However, like my well-worn flats, the same evaluations are also used to monitor progress and overall development and inform individual treatment and/or educational goals.  

But What About the Boots? 

If you recall, I packed the boots “just in case.” I like to be prepared with something comfortable in case my heels hurt, my sneakers are dirty, or my flats don’t match. Early childhood practitioners must be equally prepared to handle the complexities of evaluation. Sometimes the same measures can be used for different purposes and even the same terms may be used differently. 

For early childhood practitioners to successfully navigate the evaluation terrain, they must remember that “assessments are like shoes.” Choose your evaluation shoes with care, know when and why to wear each pair, and always be prepared. 

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