Rising Together: Systemically Reshaping Culturally Relevant Early Childhood Assessment Standards


By EC PRISM Research Specialist Aimée Drouin Duncan, PhD and EC PRISM Director of Science Communication Katie Hammond, MPH

Today in early learning, assessment standards are in place to promote child and family well-being. These standards have been developed by federal, state, and local officials and influenced by data presented by the research and scientific communities. Recently, the research community has been demonstrating that assessment tools must be considered for the population they are intended to assess. Without careful consideration to match the assessment tool (namely, who it was developed by and for) with the group being assessed, assessment tools themselves can present unreliable and biased data, notably against members of the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) community, as pointed out by the National Education Association. For example, many early childhood assessments use images and words that reflect the lived experiences of mostly white, middle-to-upper class children.  The early childhood field must work together to address this misalignment and cultivate a culture of assessment which reflects the lived experiences of all practitioners, children, and families. This requires a systematic review of all measurement and assessment practices in early childhood through the lens of cultural relevance.

Elevating Early Childhood Professionals’ Data-Rich Experiences

Early childhood professionals work to meet the needs of very young children and lay the foundation for future learning. According to the Urban Institute, they also work with parents during times of significant personal, familial, economic, and professional transitions as a result of the demands of raising very young children in the United States. They observe, scaffold, and celebrate the changes of the children in their care over time through developmentally appropriate practices, which they translate and report to supervisors and families. They know the depths of the lived experience of their children and families, and the concerns their parents do and do not share. These professionals have demonstrated their capacity and commitment to work with the system and can forecast and make recommendations for the future direction of the children and families in their communities. These are culturally grounded data points that represent the strengths of communities and must be captured and elevated through assessment.

Supporting Systems in Assessment Decision Making and Accountability

The United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau asserts that an assessment is strengths-based when it is aligned with the values of a culture. Administrators must promote the use of assessments that were developed for the cultural groups they serve. To do this, they must remain up to date with demographic fluctuations and changes for those they serve, including race and ethnicity, language and dialect, urban and rural density, age, income and education status, disability, and health care status in order to make informed assessments decisions. This is no small task for administrators that are trying to develop program standards. But in fact, it is still not enough.

Once administrators understand the population they serve, they must evaluate whether their curriculums, programs, and assessments are in fact promoting culturally relevant practices within that group or groups. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) provides a framework based in brain sciences and assumes the barriers to learning are in the environment, not the student. It allows for customization of curriculum to align with the cultural values of the community being served. This includes professional development, learning environment, and child and family outcomes. When UDL standards are the basis for measurement, then programs may begin to be held accountable for culturally relevant assessment practices. 

Promoting Ethical and Responsible Research Practices

Across early childhood education, health, and social service fields, applied researchers seek to learn and provide data about the lived experiences of children and families and the practitioners that serve them. Researchers must seek to improve data quality by reviewing their scientific process through a culturally relevant, anti-racist, anti-bias, equity focused lens. Ibram X. Kendi, a leading scholar on anti-racism, argues in The Atlantic that the heart of racism is denial, and one cannot acknowledge or change that which one does not see. Researchers may seek data from their colleagues at all levels–public and private, bottom up and top down, domestic and abroad–to understand the history, strength, oppression, and misrepresentation of BIPOC and underrepresented groups as impacted by research and measurement. Simultaneously, they must elevate and defer to these original voices, works, and data sources and invite collaborations to tell the truths of all children and families and promote ethical and responsible research.

Future Directions for Developing Culturally Relevant Assessment Standards

Early childhood systems stakeholders must assume their responsibilities in the continued systematic review of all measurement practices in the field through the lens of cultural relevance. They must engage with one another through specific learning groups and task forces using anti-racist, anti-bias, and equitable methodologies to report on the cultural groups they serve–their observations, needs, capacities, and recommendations. Then standards can be made to hold programs and systems accountable for the well-being of young children and families. Specifically:

  • Early childhood professionals (educators, case workers, and clinicians) must seek assessments that capture the lived experiences of the children and families they serve. They may start with trusted colleagues, but they must continue with technical assistance and educational resources. One such resource is the IMPACT Measures Tool, a free repository of early childhood and parenting measures that offers early childhood professionals the ability to search for, compare, and access appropriate assessment tools that align with the needs and values of their community. In this process, they may also seek networks and the support of their families and communities to advocate to their jurisdictions for their assessment needs.
  • Systems administrators at the local, state, and federal level must allocate resources to measurement task forces and seek to build research networks with diverse groups of researchers representing their jurisdictions which they serve. They must foster these relationships to build trust in practice and decision making, and to remain informed in changes in assessment regarding cultural relevance. Per research by the National Conference of State Legislatures, administrators must promote UDL as well as workforce development of early childhood educators and become stewards of both information and science to advocate for culturally relevant assessments.
  • Researchers must continue to push human centered design and other forms of data collection to hold themselves accountable for addressing cultural relevance in assessments. The most valuable step toward cultural relevance is to listen to the BIPOC community and promote their measures and assessment practices. Another form of data collection may include the use of cultural brokers to translate and contextualize assessments directly to the communities and then translate the findings to vested audiences. Research and science must do their part to change the practice of racism and bias in assessment.

The work ahead is necessary for the early childhood field to break the cycle in racist and biased measurement and establish promising practices for culturally relevant assessment and systems building. A key first step is acknowledging the depths of racism and bias within science and assessment practice. The next is to engage and empower these stakeholders to use their training to address it. Through education in anti-racism and cultural relevance and collaboration, we will continue to work together toward diverse, equitable, and inclusive assessment standards for very young children and families.

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