November 23, 2020, by Rupert Knight

Assessment records in the early years: Reducing workload or reducing quality?

In this month’s blog, Cath Gripton reflects on the purpose of documenting assessment in the early years and cautions that we risk ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’ in reducing certain types of assessment records in the education of young children.

Assessment documentation as evidence

In a recent podcast, Camilla Gilmore stated that early mathematical development is complex and requires complex assessment (2020). Clearly, simple tick lists will not suffice but there is much concern about the amount of evidence that practitioners feel they need to produce (for external professionals such as moderators, advisors or inspectors) so are more complex assessments practical? I feel that there has been a misunderstanding of assessment documentation in early years. Amidst valid concerns of unreasonable workload, assessment documentation has been under scrutiny. This is certainly the case in the revision of the EYFS curriculum and assessment where a key rationale for revision of curriculum was to reduce the burden on early years practitioners so that they can ‘spend more time interacting with children’ according to the government consultation document (p.6). Just recently, in his blog Julian Grenier (who lead the revision of ‘Development Matters’ the non-statutory guidance for EYFS in England), called for an end to ‘all this work around assessment’ that ‘has taken practitioners away from what we do best’.

A narrow view of assessment

Where assessment is merely evidence to prove practitioner judgement then this assessment is unnecessary (and some might argue de-professionalising). The new ‘Development Matters’ document echoes this concern taking this same view of assessment, cautioning against the use of data, evidence and unhelpful assessment. It frames useful assessment as check-ups, to identify what children know or can do (knowledge and skills) and help to identify children with special education needs (p.6-7). This lighter touch assessment does take minimal amounts of practitioner time but is far from the complex assessment that Gilmore advocated. Such minimal tick lists are still tick lists and are focussed on children’s performance (readily observable knowledge and skills), not on conceptual understanding, attitudes or crucially HOW a child is learning.

What we stand to lose

Whilst I am very supportive of reducing unnecessary workload, I am concerned that we might be losing something by using a simple ‘less is more’ mantra when it comes to assessment documentation. We might be losing sight of the original purpose of such documentation and at the same time potentially losing an important element of teaching that supports effective practice and ultimately children’s learning.
In early childhood education, children’s learning is commonly documented but for the purposes of practice rather than for evidence. Originating in the preschools of the Reggio Emilia region in Italy, pedagogical documentation, as discussed in this lecture by Alma Fleet, is widely used internationally with a range of documents supporting insight into children’s learning (learning stories is a popular example).

Pedagogical documentation

Pedagogical documentation is about using and creating documents to make learning visible and support the practitioner in determining appropriate pedagogy to most effectively support the child’s learning. These documents (visual, auditory and written) mediate the practitioner’s understanding of the child’s learning, forming the basis for reflection, discussion and action. The child, their family and a number of practitioners can be included in discussion and this provides a more fully-informed, reliable assessment leading to better practice and more coherent approaches when acted upon. The child is positioned as competent and capable, as a full participant in the educational process, rather than as a passive subject to be measured to see if they are deficient against a set of criteria Instead the complexity of learning can be captured (Fleet et al., 2017). This type of assessment record supports practitioner thinking, develops insight and improves practice. The process of documenting learning is pedagogic not evidentiary and it values the process of learning (how each child learns),

The misuse of pedagogical documentation for data or evidence

Issues arise where assessment records are subverted from the nobler agenda of the educational process to providing evidence of outcomes. As Alice Bradbury suggests, datafictation arises from pressure and scrutiny. Any curriculum document can be used like a tick list when practitioners seek to demonstrate that the content has been covered or when tracking systems for older children are applied in early years to measure progress over time. Professionals want to do their best for children and want to do a good job so will jump through the necessary hoops to defend the learning of the children in their care and the practice that they hold dear.

I urge practitioners to hold onto (and for some reclaim) the types of assessment that support their practice: the assessment records which help them to really know children. These records are integral to practice and help practitioners to analyse, share and reflect on children’s learning and development (both what and how they have learned). Through creating and sharing such records, we adapt practice and provision to more effectively support individual children’s learning. These records form the basis of discussions and celebrations of learning with children and their families. Rather than taking them away, these assessment records bring practitioners closer to children.

Fleet, A., Patterson, C. & Robertson, J. (2017) Pedagogical Documentation. London: Sage

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