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A principal’s perspective: Formative assessments in early childhood education and the impact of COVID-19 school closures

a teacher teaching a boy and a girl

By Jennifer McKay | September 29, 2020

This post from school administrator Jennifer McKay wraps up our formative assessment blog series from the Southwest Early Childhood Education (SWECE) Research Partnership. McKay is principal of Lower Spero Early Childhood Center in Oklahoma City. She has served as a member of REL Southwest’s SWECE partnership and as senior director of early childhood education for the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE).

Teachers use ongoing formative assessments throughout the school year to collect evidence of students’ knowledge and skills. In early childhood settings, formative assessments usually take place during regular classroom instruction and activities. The information collected guides planning for instruction to better support each child’s learning and development. For more on the topic, see Part 1 of this blog series, which features REL Southwest’s video Every Child Shines: Using Formative Assessment to Reflect on Children's Individual Knowledge and Skills, an introduction to the use of formative assessment in prekindergarten (preK) and kindergarten. Part 2 of the series shares the perspective of Oklahoma early childhood teacher Rori Hodges.

Effective teachers make informed instructional decisions from formative assessment data. In the wake of 2019/20 COVID-19 pandemic school closures, using the best information teachers can gather to inform teaching practices is more critical than ever. Formative assessments at the beginning of the 2020/21 school year will collect student data crucial to closing gaps in learning that result from missed months of school. Additionally, formative assessments can serve as a window to understanding students’ social and emotional well-being after the prolonged absence of regular daily routines and social interactions. In the article “Closing the Achievement Gap,” Kati Haycock writes, “To increase the achievement levels of minority and low-income students, we need to focus on what really matters: high standards, a challenging curriculum, and good teachers.”1 The critical component that links high standards, challenging curriculum, and good teachers is a strong understanding of where students are in their progress and where they need to be.

Supporting teachers to use formative assessment data to plan instruction means helping them understand that the formative assessment process is not a single event or measurement, but rather an ongoing, planned, and intentional practice that occurs during regular classroom activities and lessons. Formative assessment includes multiple sources of evidence, such as anecdotal notes, writing samples, photos, formal and informal checklists, and other artifacts that are gathered over time. Teachers often think of assessments as end results or judgments on teaching and learning rather than the starting point for great teaching and learning. It is key that teachers have in-depth understanding of all areas of development to include social and emotional, cognitive, language, and physical. Understanding of how students learn and what skills they need is vital to helping create a foundation for long-term academic success. For teachers to have a full understanding of how to use formative assessment they must fully understand that assessments are not reflective of teacher success or failure, but a guide to helping students achieve at a high level.

As a school leader, I believe providing solid teacher training is important in preparing preK teachers to use formative assessments in their classrooms. In training, I always begin with the brief REL Southwest video, Every Child Shines: Using Formative Assessment to Reflect on Children's Individual Knowledge and Skills. The video can be an effective way to help teachers feel comfortable about our discussion of formative assessment. Gaining a strong understanding about the differences between formative assessment and other types of assessment (for example, summative assessment, diagnostic assessment, and interim assessment) helps teachers gain confidence in their own planning and teaching methods. The more confident teachers are in administering an assessment and understanding the components of the assessment, the more confident they will be in using the results to guide instruction and in helping families understand the process, as well. 

At times, assessment results can be misunderstood by parents. When this happens, changing the narrative is as important for parents as it is for teachers. School staff should explain assessment results and information in family-friendly terms and avoid “teacher talk.” We try to emphasize to families that assessments are like a “well child” appointment. Assessments are our baseline for moving teaching and learning to ensure progress for their child. We offer opportunities for parents to see what formative assessment methods look like and to ask questions. During our conversations with families, we want to ensure that they understand that assessments are used as tools to inform teaching and improve learning for their child. These conversations allow teachers to share information about how the child is learning and growing throughout the school year and promote positive home-school relationships with families. Especially during the challenges related to COVID-19, alleviating parents’ stress regarding the assessment of young learners helps families and educators alike.

Finally, when school staff do “walk-throughs” to observe our early childhood classrooms, what do we expect to see regarding formative assessment? In 2020/21, walk-throughs in our building will focus on observing that teachers are

  • aligning lessons to specific learning outcomes;
  • providing criteria for student success at meeting learning outcomes;
  • giving examples of work products that demonstrate student success; and
  • planning lessons, activities, and assessments that support learning for all students, including modifications for differences in students’ learning needs.

Setting clear expectations about observable teaching practices helps teachers think strategically about the assessment cycle, thinking about lessons and activities that lead to the collection of formative assessment data and the use of that data in planning. When we are conducting walk-throughs in classrooms, we can focus on aligned lessons and provide feedback on lesson delivery and student work products. Finding bright spots in instruction is easier when grade level teams are confident that the assessment data they are using to guide instruction is consistent and valid. The clear roadmap we have from strong and useful formative assessments allows our teachers to focus on aligned lessons across grade levels, providing opportunity for all children to learn.


1 Haycock, K. (2001). Closing the achievement gap. Educational Leadership, 58(6), 6–11.

For more information on early childhood education, formative assessments, and COVID-19 resources:

This work was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES) under contract 91990018C0002, administered by American Institutes for Research. The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. government.

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Jennifer McKay

Principal | Lower Spero Early Childhood Center