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IEL Interviews with Early Childhood Education Notables: Interview with Sam Meisels About
Spring 2011

Illinois Early Learning staff asked Sam Meisels to discuss his work on developmentally appropriate assessments of young children and on measuring program effectiveness and quality.


Sam MeiselsSam is the president of Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development located in Chicago. He is the coauthor of the Work Sampling System, the Early Screening Inventory–Revised, the Ounce Scale, and the Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention. Sam is past president of the board of directors of Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families, and has been an advisor to National Head Start. He has served as a senior investigator for the national Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement.


Question Can you describe the path that led you to working professionally in the field of early childhood education?

Answer Sam Meisels:
My path was not a direct one. It began when I went to graduate school at Harvard University where I was taking a doctorate in education and philosophy. By adding education to my long-held interest in philosophy I hoped to take a more practical approach by applying moral philosophy to the problems of education. Jean Piaget was all the rage then. There was a great course on the stages of moral development taught by Lawrence Kohlberg that got me very interested in this theory of knowledge that Piaget was propounding. I spent time in a preschool to test these theories of children’s responses to moral dilemmas. I taught kindergarten and first grade while getting my degree and stayed in that professional field my whole life. It is a very fulfilling way to combine my intellectual interests with my passion for helping children.

Question In your work, you talk about the current interest in and problems with accountability testing in preschool. What are the greatest unintended consequences of testing in early childhood?

Answer Sam Meisels:
There are many. Adults are deceived by some of the information they think they are getting from early childhood assessments because they overlook the huge differences between children, including their experience at taking tests. Many children at that age are not very good test takers. The assessment results often do not demonstrate how much children know, but how comfortable children are with the test-taking situation or with the types of responses being elicited. Another unintended consequence of testing in early childhood is that children may come to believe that they are not capable, that they are slow in learning to read or in doing math, when the real problem is that the test does not permit them to demonstrate what they know and can do. Children may be unfairly held back or tracked into a slow group as a result of test scores, and teachers’ expectations can be altered about children’s abilities. We have to be extremely careful when assessing young children.

Question If tests are unreliable in early childhood, how can we more accurately measure program quality? How can we know which programs are working for young children?

Answer Sam Meisels:
The interest in knowing whether programs are working is different from knowing whether a child scores high or low, which is the focus of early assessments. Many have been led to believe that a score on a test will inform us about a child, a program, a teacher, a school, or a district. No brief test of young children’s achievement administered in a summative way can capture the complexity of PreK children’s growth.

If we want to find out about the quality of a program, we need instead to engage in some form of program evaluation that is much more than just giving a test. In a PreK program, we want to know about the emotional climate for learning created by the teacher as well as her instructional practices. We also want to know demographic details about the child, his/her family, the teacher, and the school, as well as the child’s baseline performance. All of this and more goes into a program evaluation.

Question How can we help the public in general and policy makers in particular become more comfortable with complex answers to simple questions about whether young children are learning?

Answer Sam Meisels:
That is the focus of my paper Accountability in Early Childhood: No Easy Answers (PDF). I used to get calls from policy people asking me, “What test should I use?” Although I still occasionally get those requests, I can say there has been a change. People are beginning to understand that there’s more to evaluating achievement in the early years than merely giving an achievement test.

Many states are using performance assessments (versus accountability testing) to look at how children are doing right after they enter school. We give young children individualized, as opposed to group, assessments now. We do look at multiple domains. Those are positive changes. Today you would rarely see anyone giving a group-administered achievement test to a class of 4- or 5-year-old children. That was very common not so long ago.

That said, we are approaching 10 years of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), President George W. Bush’s signature education legislation, which made accountability the centerpiece of educational policy and test scores the sole means of demonstrating it. Despite NCLB, or perhaps because of it, people’s thinking about testing and assessments is changing. We know a lot of test preparation occurred under NCLB and that test preparation is dramatically ineffective in terms of learning. The “undoing” of the last 10 years of NCLB may take a lot longer than the “doing” of NCLB.

Question What are some other common misunderstandings about assessing young children’s learning?

Answer Sam Meisels:
We still have to remind people that there is a difference between children under the age of 8 years and over the age of 8 years. And we can’t ignore the “opportunity to learn” differences between children. Children’s early experiences are often associated with different economic circumstances, different vocabulary exposure, for example. Children look very different when they start school because of these early “opportunity to learn” differences. One of the purposes of school is to help equalize those differences. McKinsey and Company, national management consultants, published some recent time-use data that underscores the critical role of children’s out-of-school experiences. That data indicated that children spend less than 15% of their day in school, 30% of their day sleeping, and the rest of their time—over 50%—with their family and in their community. Children spend a small fraction of their day in school. We cannot ignore the different early “opportunity to learn” experiences children bring when they begin school.

Question In its recent budget recommendation to the General Assembly, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) recommended designating $1.5 million toward developing a kindergarten readiness assessment process in Illinois to help build effective connections between early childhood education and K-12 systems. Is this the right direction for us to take in Illinois in your view?

Answer Sam Meisels:
This is a proposal made by Superintendent Chris Koch and ISBE. Whether the General Assembly will appropriate funds remains unknown. I feel comfortable about the direction we are taking in Illinois. What will be proposed is that the state adopts some form of kindergarten readiness performance assessment and that it also makes a commitment to professional development for kindergarten teachers. We are not interested in one-shot professional development, but an ongoing process of professional development with the goal of enhancing instruction and improving learning. This will be closely tied to a performance-based kindergarten assessment.

Question Any closing thoughts?

Answer Sam Meisels:
I’ve been in this field for nearly 40 years. There have been some positive changes in how we view assessments and young children. I feel optimistic about the direction of early childhood education in this country. Hopefully, we will be able to survive the current economic crises that threaten to reduce options for young children. We have learned a great deal about children in the first years of life. Now our challenge is to put this knowledge to work.


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