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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

Grade-ification of the Early Years: Summative Assessments

The early years has for decades been subject to grade-ification, essentially taking what happens in primary school and above then using it in classrooms of the youngest children (kindergarten). First, it was subject based teaching by dividing the day into English, Math, Science etc. Then set content made its way down with the notion 'earlier is better'. Both have caused big problems for teachers, students and families. One way the early years has tried to remedy this is with another 'ification', the gamification model. Instead of doing subject classes teachers should make subject areas in the room with rotations. For example, 15 minutes in each area then rotate. Instead of worksheets/workbooks, hands on craft or games to learn phonics and math skills younger than before. I would argue both have helped to hide the problems but not fix them. Today I want to explore another area of schooling that has become mainstream in the early years, summative assessments.

Should there be summative assessments in the early years?

There are generally two types of assessments, formative and summative. I thought the best definition to use would be from Twinkl, a website designed for school wide learning specifically early years and primary.

Summative Assessments

"are any method of evaluation performed at the end of a unit or term, allowing teachers to measure a students' understanding against standardised criteria. They usually result in the student receiving a determined grade, either being a letter grade or numbered level that tells the student how well they are performing academically. Teachers can also use these results to evaluate how successful their teaching methods were and see if they need to be adjusted next time they teach that unit." Twinkl

Formative Assessments

"are on-going and can happen as many times as a teacher feels is appropriate for their class." Twinkl

I would argue there shouldn't be any summative assessments for children in the early years only formative. At no age in ECE should a child be judged on their ability to know something by a ''standardized criteria' and then given a grade or score for that assessment. I would even go as far as say this should be the same in primary school. Teachers should always be working together with children to improve skills, knowledge and most importantly cultivate a continuous interest in being curious. Summative assessments that end in final grades can needlessly discourage children and even worse it makes families feel their child is behind or failing school.

Summative assessments generally favor certain subjects which inadvertently creates biases towards them over other areas like sports, the arts and what is often called 'soft skills'. This happens because it is easy to test phonics and math knowledge compared to problem solving, emotional development, social skills and creativity. This leads to an uneven focus on some areas of leaning and development over others.

Another issue with summative assessments are they are usually determined by a fixed score or rubric that students need to reach to ascertain a grade. Such assessments don't look at progress from one point in time to the next. Let's say a five year old joins kindergarten for the first time. It's a teacher directed focused kindergarten with an emphasis on certain subjects, you know the ones. The new student doesn't know any letters yet but other children are learning CVC words now. At the end of the month the new student goes from learning no letters to the whole alphabet and their name but the summative assessment is spelling 5 CVC words with a point for each letter (total 15). This student gets under three points and it deemed a failure compared to other students. This type of assessment doesn't take into account the personal progress made since joining the kindergarten.

Assessments FOR Learning (AFL)


Reflection OF Learning (ROL).

"Assessment for learning (AFL) is an approach to teaching and learning that creates feedback which is then used to improve students’ performance."

Assessment for learning helps us understand the purpose of ongoing assessment. We observe children, assess and then make plans for next steps either together or for the students (both work and both should be used as well as including the family).

(from Cambridge)

When I think about assessment I prefer to use the term AFL rather than formative. I also like the term ROL (Reflection OF Learning) as it suggests, to me anyways, a reflection of all that has been learnt rather than summative assessment (judgement).

Child development happens by stages not ages and although we can predict that children can do or are ready for certain things by age there is still a large number of children who need more time to reach certain areas. We also know earlier isn't better and so our focus should always be on where the student is now and where we think they can get to next, then supporting them to get to that place. There is a need for feedback but not for a grade or score.


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