In the first years of life, developmental trajectories change rapidly, creating dramatic opportunities for children to learn new things and grow. This window of growth is an important time because research indicates parents, educators and other adults are the primary influencers in child level success. Within these first five years, language development is included in this window, as children are listening and learning new vocabulary within every interaction with their caregivers.

One important facet of language development and companion early literacy skill development, is attending to the level and rate at which these skills are acquired. Early literacy include prerequisite foundations for learning to read, including skill such as rhyming, alliteration, vocabulary acquisition, early comprehension, letter names and letter sounds. By understanding how the development of these skills progresses, we can improve instructional approaches and tailor intervention to build skills that are lagging behind or are not growing as quickly as desired.

Understanding Progress Monitoring

Progress monitoring is an approach to measurement that helps inform these important facets. Progress monitoring is the frequent assessment of student performance using formative tools designed to capture small increments of progress toward important long-term goals or to assess mastery of skills recently taught. In contrast to summative assessments that evaluate status, achievement, or ability, at a single point in time, progress monitoring tools are designed to be used repeatedly to examine how skills are developing over brief periods of time.

Features of Progress Monitoring Tools

Given their utility in examining how student progress is moving toward identified long-term goals, progress monitoring tools can be an important resource to facilitate data-based decision making. However, it is important to understand the benefits and limitations of such tools to appropriately apply the resulting data. It is also important to note that progress monitoring tools must also abide by traditional psychometric expectations for sound measurement, including adequate reliability and evidence for validity.

First, progress monitoring tools must demonstrate adequate standard error of measurement (SEM). SEM is an important principle in progress monitoring because SEM tells the user how much confidence they can have in a single score by establishing confidence bands based at +/- one SEM unit. When an assessment has a large SEM the obtained score can occur anywhere within that range, decreasing confidence in the observed score’s representation of a child’s true performance. SEM is even more importance in progress monitoring because multiple assessment results, or scores, are interpreted as a whole. When the SEM of any one data point overlaps with the SEM with another consecutive data point data interpretations are be limited.

Second, because progress monitoring is designed to be used frequently it is important to consider the appropriateness of an identified frequency. Early childhood is a time of rapid changes, as previously noted, but we can only assess changes in a frequency that matches the capacity of the test to detect reliable changes. As such, while users may desire to assess as frequently as every week, it may be difficulty to observe meaningful changes in performance in this small of a time window. Instead, it is important to use information about the nature of progression of the skill and the SEM to determine the appropriate frequency.

Third, progress monitoring scores can be used to examine performance over time, but not without a first establishing a trend. To identify trends in student performance at least three data points are required, with increasing confidence in the trend of data performance for every data point gathered. Without a trend in performance it is difficult to determine if a student is indeed making progress, maintaining performance, or slowing in their acquisition of early language and literacy skills.

Data-based Decision Making

With meaningful data collected on an appropriate frequency, we can observe how students are progressing toward long term goals, such as reading. One of the easiest approaches to observe these trends is to graph the student data. Using graphing programs (e.g. programs ranging from simple models like Excel to more complicated models that offer various features such as teachers can view student data over time, which in turn promotes data-based decision making because of the nature questions that arrives from viewing student data in a graphic format:

  • How is this student performing over time?
  • Is this student on track?
  • Does this student need to catch up?
  • What rate does the student need to achieve to be on target?

Educators can evaluate progress monitoring trends in the context of aim lines, which connect student performance to identified long term goals visually on a graph. Aim lines present a visual stimulus for the user to determine if the student is above or below target given the expectation. When a student is below target, an intervention can be applied to strategically boost student performance. When a student is above target or on target the educator can be confident the instructional practices currently in use are appropriate and successful for the student.

Taken together, progress monitoring tools offer a wealth of information that can be used to support student success and create academic environments that promote early language and literacy success.