Point of View

Better assessment in early grades will help children learn

October 16, 2013 

Arguably, the third grade is a critical milestone for all children in the Public Schools of North Carolina. However, the period between kindergarten and third grade represents an important opportunity for our public education system to close achievement gaps and ensure every child’s success.

But are we prepared to meet this challenge? Because understanding and supporting young students in ways that leverage their strengths and abilities is necessary to foster a trajectory of academic success, it seems essential to focus at least part of a reform agenda on early grade formative assessment.

By early grade formative assessment, we are not referring to another high-stakes test for accountability purposes but a process that enables teachers to better understand each student’s current learning trajectory, so that they can plan instruction that meets the individual needs of each child. By strengthening the best of what teachers do on a daily basis within the context of instruction, e.g., observation, questioning, conversation, formative assessment can drive the deep understanding of a child that is necessary to unlocking academic growth and development. Such an assessment process has the potential to provide the best opportunity for children to demonstrate what they know and are able to do, as well as help teachers support each child to reach challenging but achievable goals.

In response to the challenge of helping all children succeed by third grade, North Carolina Superintendent June Atkinson convened the K-3 Assessment Think Tank, which included North Carolina school teachers, parents, scholars representing seven North Carolina universities, and additional stakeholders. The group was charged with proposing a plan to improve early elementary school learning and instruction through more efficient and effective use of student-centered assessments.

Over a nine-month period, the Think Tank reviewed scientific findings and best practices and solicited input from a wide array of stakeholders, including over 2,500 N.C. teachers and over 60 state and national scholars and education leaders. Released this week, the report summarizes the Think Tank’s findings, its vision for an innovative process to improve learning, and its recommendations for next steps.

The Think Tank proposes a formative assessment process that begins the first day of kindergarten and continues through third grade. It engages teachers and students with input from parents and families, school support staff, early childhood programs, and health care providers. The process will incorporate multiple forms of evidence and is intended to be an ongoing and integral part of the instructional and learning process that teachers and students use to guide teaching and learning.


The Think Tank’s formative assessment plan has already received recognition as being at the cutting edge of education policy. North Carolina has recently been awarded a grant to lead a consortium of eight other states to coordinate efforts as they develop their assessment plans. North Carolina will benefit from this multi-state effort as it prepares for future statewide implementation.

North Carolina teachers indicate that they are up to the challenge: they are willing and able to utilize a formative assessment process, provided they are given resources to strengthen, support, and guide their efforts. The implementation plan must include professional development, coaching, and support from leadership.

North Carolina has long been a national leader in education innovation and is poised to lead in early elementary school reform through this plan to develop and implement a developmentally appropriate formative assessment for Kindergarten through third grade. For the sake of those in North Carolina public schools, teachers and students alike, it is imperative that we get this right.

John Pruette is the Director of the Office of Early Learning at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Kenneth A. Dodge is the William McDougall Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University. Together, they co-chaired the Superintendent’s Think Tank.

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