NC Data Experts Recommend New Approach to Measuring Early Childhood Development

Raleigh, NC (April 28, 2020) – North Carolina’s policymakers and early learning leaders need good data about NC’s kindergartners’ development in order to make decisions about where resources are most needed. Adding up scores on individual assessments may not be the best way to measure how the state’s kindergartners are doing overall, says a group of North Carolina data experts and early learning leaders. The group also proposed ways NC can more accurately assess the strengths of children who face higher structural barriers to opportunity. The full report is available here.

The Child Development at Kindergarten Entry data workgroup, facilitated by the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation, has recommended that data from the NC Kindergarten Entry Assessment (KEA) not be used in the aggregate – meaning that the state should not combine children’s individual scores to get one score for a whole school, school district, or the state at-large. One of the workgroup’s concerns about using the KEA data is that inter-rater reliability has not been established for the KEA.

“The workgroup noted that there is not strong evidence that a teacher in one classroom is interpreting the questions or rating children’s skills the same way as a teacher in another classroom,” said Mandy Ableidinger of the NC Early Childhood Foundation, who helped to facilitate the group. “Those possible differences in interpretation mean that adding up data among many classrooms of kindergartners to assess overall readiness may be like trying to add apples and oranges.”

Despite this limitation, the KEA data has been reported on the NC School Report Cards at the school level for the past couple of years.

A fix may already be in the works. A recent change in the way North Carolina kindergarteners are assessed during their first couple months in school may mean better data for the state to make decisions about what investments would best support young children’s development and early learning.

The Office of Early Learning at the NC Department of Public Instruction is rolling out the NC Early Learning Inventory (ELI) to replace the KEA. In practice, the two tools are similar: kindergarten teachers observe children as they work, play and interact with peers in their classrooms and then document evidence of their learning and development in online portfolios. In contrast to direct assessment – where a teacher might sit with a student and ask him or her questions to assess skills and competencies – observation-based, ongoing assessment occurs during small moments throughout the school day. Teachers watch for evidence of children’s skills and competencies in five domains of learning and development:

  • Language and literacy development
  • Cognition and general knowledge
  • Approaches toward learning
  • Physical well-being and motor development
  • Social and emotional development

Documenting children’s progress allows teachers to individualize instruction for each child and gives them a tool to communicate with a child’s family about his or her strengths and where supports might be needed.

One important difference between the new ELI and the old KEA is that the ELI is built on a set of developmental progressions that are used nationwide, rather than just in North Carolina. NC teachers can be trained to make sure that they are interpreting the questions and the evidence of children’s skills and competencies in the same ways that teachers across the country are interpreting them. This means that the data teachers will gather through the ELI can not only support individual students’ instruction, but they are also more consistent across classrooms. When these data are aggregated, they can help principals, school district superintendents, and the state make data-driven decisions about where groups of children’s strengths lie and where they may need more support. That information can be used to adjust standards and curricula, improve professional development for teachers and administrators, and provide additional student support where they are most needed.

The Child Development at Kindergarten Entry data workgroup also shared other recommendations, including that North Carolina:

  • Acknowledge the racial bias inherent in assessments and intentionally measure the strengths of children of color to counteract that bias. Research can help NC to better understand how implicit racial bias inherent in all child assessments impacts assessment results and to identify best practices to mitigate that bias. The state can also identify additional child development measures that build readiness – in addition to the five domains – that may highlight strengths of children of color. A few examples include: risk-taking, creativity, flexibility, persistence, awareness of racial and social identities, language diversity, or narrative skills.
  • Use multiple measures of child development at kindergarten entry. Child development is complex, and teachers and parents both have expertise about the skills and competencies of children they are spending time with every day. North Carolina should consider both teacher-reported and parent-reported measures in developing a portfolio of overall child development at kindergarten entry.
  • Consider using the National Survey of Children’s Health to benefit from parents’ expertise on their children’s development. This national phone, mail and online survey has a section of questions that ask parents about their children’s development at this age. In order to get data that can be disaggregated by race/ethnicity and by county, NC would need to invest in oversampling (surveying more parents than usual in all regions of the state) for that section of the survey.

The Child Development at Kindergarten Entry data workgroup was convened as part of a larger effort to improve the collection, analysis and use of early childhood data in the state through the Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative. The Pathways initiative has created partnerships among the state’s early learning and education, public agency, policy, philanthropic and business leaders to define a common vision, shared measures of success and coordinated strategies that support children’s optimal development beginning at birth. The Pathways Measures of Success Framework identifies 50-60 whole-child, birth-through-age-eight data indicators that research shows impact third-grade reading proficiency. An interactive, online data dashboard of the Pathways measures will be available later in 2020. Pathways is an initiative of the NC Early Childhood Foundation in collaboration with NC Child, the North Carolina Partnership for Children (Smart Start), and BEST NC.

The data workgroup was funded through a federal Preschool Development Grant, and the recommendations will inform the work of the NC Early Childhood Data Advisory Council and the NC Department of Health and Human Services’ Early Childhood Action Plan. The workgroup process was coordinated and facilitated by Dr. Sarah Heinemeier of Compass Evaluation and Research, Kate Irish of Kate Irish Consulting, and the NC Early Childhood Foundation. Racial equity consultation was provided by Dr. Sterling Freeman and Kathleen Crabbs of CounterPart Consulting.

For more information about the Child Development at Kindergarten Entry data workgroup, please contact Mandy Ableidinger at