When the topics of early childhood education and technology come together there are often intense opinions about when and if children should be exposed to technology at young ages, how such interactions impact child level outcomes and behaviors and the intended or unintended impact such use of technology in preschool may have on family, teacher, classroom or system level practices. Current research is developing on both sides of this debate and at present we have few empirical studies to support how to make decisions about child level interactions with technology during the early childhood years.
However, one area of technology that is less frequented in the research is the use of technology to support assessment practices in early childhood. Evidence suggests the educational environment at large, predominantly in K-12 settings, has made use of technology to improve assessment practices for at least a decade (Vernadakis et al., 2005). Assessments are frequently delivered on tablets or computers to students to allow for computer-adaptive testing, increase efficiency via automated scoring and recording, and to access variables otherwise unattainable to the assessor during paper pencil interactions (e.g. item level timing, response pattern analyses etc.). However the utility in using technology to support assessment in early childhood programs has significantly lagged behind its K-12 counterpart. As we enter an age of increasing technology in children’s lives it is important to address if this lag is warranted, and what the barriers and advantages are of considering such technology use.
Imagine a classroom where there are 18 preschool age students and each needs comprehensive assessment across at least three domains: early literacy, numeracy, and social emotional/behavioral domains. Let us assume for each of these domains there is one sets of measures that take approximately 20 minutes to administer. The numbers begin to add up: for each student we need one hour of assessment and for 18 preschoolers that means the assessor must spend approximately half a week of educational time assessing all of their students. For these students the teachers need to administer the measures by purchasing protocols, preparing any stimulus materials, scoring each response, totaling and scaling scores and then transferring that score to a location that promotes data utility- potentially a database, student file or other summary statistic form used to support instruction. Students are generally assessed at least three times a year, so this entire sequence must occur at least once seasonally. As we paint this picture we become keenly aware of the many requirements that are attached to understanding student performance through assessment.
One might review these requirements and think to themselves: “We should not assess so much!” as this is a logical conclusion that can be drawn from the context presented. However, if we stop assessing important questions go unanswered: How will we know if a student is making progress in each domain? How will we know how far behind (or ahead) a student is compared to age-level expectations for each domain or skill? How will be able to change instruction to meet child level performance needs if we have no information on where they are or where their performance is headed?
These questions are critical for a successful academic experience, yet, we are plagued with a mismatch between our assessment practices and how we can go about answering these questions. Further, we are also challenged to consider the unintended consequences of using the assessment approach mentioned in the classroom described. Teachers often carry out the practice of assessment as required by their program or system, but the interaction with the data often stop there. The testing protocols may be filed away without any potential for application to inform instructional changes.
Now imagine a classroom where a teacher has a tablet device that she is able to move around the room with as she engages students. She has all assessments she needs to complete available in an application on the tablet. All scoring, item delivery and training are provided within the application— all she needs to do is sit with a child, provide the stimuli on a child device and allow the application to do the scoring. Immediately after the assessment, within 1 second, she sees the student’s scores and can evaluate his or her data in the context of benchmarks and growth standards. She can access real time suggestions for instructional changes that are warranted as a result of the student’s scores. She can, in real-time, engage in a data-based decision making model, all within approximately half the time it takes to deliver, score, and interpret assessment results in the traditional paper pencil format.
The contrast in these scenarios is significant on a pragmatic and substantive level. Teachers can improve assessment practices in early childhood settings with the help of technology to free up more time for interacting with students as well as to provide more robust and accurate student performance scores. Yet, in early childhood settings we are still only beginning to make the transition to technology supported assessment practices.
Barriers to assessment technology in preschool settings
Given that 3-5 year old children in most early childhood settings do not yet have capacity to independently interact with a tablet device for assessment purposes, one of the largest barriers to independent assessment technology is producing meaningful, valid student level scores. One approach that resolves this challenge is to allow the child and teacher to use two devices (yoked by Bluetooth technology) where the teacher can still score items and ensure the child is attending and engaging with content (and thus producing a valid response pattern), but all content is delivered automatically and once scored, all item responses are stored and analyzed automatically.
Another barrier present in early childhood settings is accessibility. Early childhood classrooms are less likely to have tablets available to teachers than K-12 educators and are less likely to have consistent wireless access, especially in rural or remote communities (Blackwell, Lauricella & Wartella, 2014). However, with trends toward equipment purchases like tablets for early childhood classrooms increasing across the nation and continued improved accessibility to wireless networks in all early childhood settings, assessment technology is becoming more and more feasible. Many technology platforms use Bluetooth technology instead of wireless connections to allow devices to record student data, which further reduces accessibility barriers.
Advantages of assessment technology in preschool settings
As illustrated in the imagined classrooms described, there are many advantages of using technology for assessment in early childhood settings. The ease of preparing materials, the reduction in time required to assess students, and increase in student engagement, and automatic, real-time scoring are all advantages that can improve early childhood assessment experiences. Further, the notion that data can be consumed in real time through digital technology to create a cycle of results informing meaningful changes in instructional practices and thus child outcomes, has potential to change the way we differentiate instruction.
Using IGDIs on a tablet device
The IGDI researchers are working to be part of the assessment technology tide described here with the new early literacy and language automated application: Automated Application for Performance Evaluation of Early Language and Literacy or IGDI-APEL. IGDI-APEL is a new interface designed to provide teacher and student with a technology-based interface for assessment. The IGDI items are delivered in much the same way they are in paper pencil form, but on two tablet devices. The devices are yoked so the child level information is recorded and depicted on the teacher’s tablet, where the teacher can evaluate his or her performance as correct or incorrect. After just 1-3 minutes of item administration the technology quickly and automatically scores the tasks to produce data that can be evaluated against benchmarks, standards and individual growth expectations. These interactions lead to suggestions for evidence-based practices in differentiated instruction that can promote skill growth for students who have scores that are not yet meeting benchmarks.
In short, IGDIs are joining the effort to use technology in strategic ways in early childhood classrooms to support data-based decision making with the aim of improving student outcomes and reducing achievement gaps before they begin.
- Blackwell, C. K., Lauricella, A. R., & Wartella, E. (2014). Factors influencing digital technology use in early childhood education. Computers & Education,77, 82-90.
- Vernadakis, N., Avgerinos, A., Tsitskari, E., & Zachopoulou, E. (2005). The use of computer assisted instruction in preschool education: Making teaching meaningful. Early Childhood Education Journal, 33(2), 99-104.