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Assessment in early primary education: an empirical study of five school contexts.

Within the current standards-based framework of early primary education, teachers must negotiate the integration of assessment with traditional, developmental orientations to teaching and learning. The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine teachers' approaches to early primary assessment within five different school contexts: public, independent, Froebel, Waldorf, and Montessori. Data were collected from 12 kindergarten to Grade 2 teachers through in-depth interviews followed by ethnographic observations of eight classrooms. Data were thematically analyzed to identify core approaches to assessment across the contexts related to the following themes: (1) diverse conceptions of assessment, (2) commitments to student-oriented assessment, (3) knowing children through a practice of observation, and (4) assessment of academic standards. Underpinning these assessment themes was the fundamental commitment of early-primary educators to whole-child teaching and assessment. The article concludes with suggestions for future research that explore the intersection between teaching and assessment in play-based pedagogical contexts, alternative educational approaches, and systems of high accountability, with the aim of supporting teachers in bridging developmental and academic priorities in the early primary grades.

Keywords: early primary education, elementary education, assessment, evaluation, teacher practice, observation, Froebel, Waldorf, Montessori, independent, public


Two trends currently influence early primary education: first, primary education has become a focal priority across education systems, given significant research on the long-term value of quality early-years learning (Alexander, 2010; Pascal, 2009); second, the accountability movement, which has shaped upper years' education for the past 15 years, is trickling down to the primary grades, resulting in greater emphasis on academic standards and student assessment (Cooper, 2009; Jeynes, 2006; Michnick-Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, & Singer, 2006). In addressing these trends, educators and researchers have begun to question the purpose of early-years learning (i.e., junior kindergarten to Grade 3 formal schooling), resulting in a global debate between traditional developmental orientations and a more contemporary standards-based orientation (Alexander, 2010; Goldstein, 2007b; Gullo & Hughes, 2011). As a result, early primary teachers must negotiate a balance in teaching social, emotional, and cognitive skills aligned with the individual growth and development of each child (i.e., developmental orientation) and teaching standards-based curricula to ensure all students achieve the same expectations (i.e., standards-based orientation). Although these orientations are commonly represented as dichotomous, previous research suggests that teachers are able to negotiate these orientations within their practice in various ways (Goldstein, 2007a; Pyle & DeLuca, 2013). Moreover, teachers working within diverse educational philosophies (e.g., Montessori, Froebel, and Waldorf) balance these orientations differently (Edwards, 2002).

Within this negotiated context of early primary education, the integration of assessments in response to developmental and standards-based orientations remains a challenge for many teachers (Brown, 2011; Cuban, 2009; Gullo, 2006; Pyle & DeLuca, 2013). This challenge is not surprising for the following reasons. First, the accountability movement was initially introduced to demonstrate student achievement of academic standards in upper years education (i.e., greater than Grade 3) through classroom-based testing and large-scale, standardized assessments (Klinger, DeLuca, & Miller, 2008; Stobart, 2008). Although these forms of assessment can be efficiently used with older students, their feasibility and effectiveness at primary grades is limited (Cooper, 2009; Cuban, 2009; Jeynes, 2006; Singer, 2006). As such, dominant assessment structures used to measure academic standards in upper grades are less applicable to early-years learning. Second, few alternative assessment structures have been identified and researched to measure academic standards in primary education (Gullo & Hughes, 2011; Pyle & DeLuca, 2013). Research on primary assessments is alarmingly sparse, with little guidance provided to teachers on appropriating traditional developmental assessments to function within accountability contexts (Pyle & DeLuca, 2013). Third, few teachers are sufficiently prepared to assess student learning because they have had limited education in assessment theory and practice (Campbell & Evans, 2000; DeLuca & Klinger, 2010; MacLellan, 2004; Mertler, 2004; Stiggins, 1999). Significant research indicates that teachers have low levels of assessment competence because assessment has historically been limited within teacher education programs. As a result, teachers struggle to interpret assessment policies and implement assessment practices that align with contemporary assessment theory. Lastly, but perhaps most significant, teachers of young children often have negative attitudes toward assessment because of previous negative experiences when they were students (DeLuca, Chavez, Cao, & Bellara, 2013; Harrison, 2005).

As a result of these challenges, assessment remains a confounding aspect of early primary education with little guidance on how to integrate assessments to meet various educational purposes. Our aim in this article was to analyze teachers' approaches to early primary assessment. Specifically, we examined the practices of early primary teachers working in five different school contexts: public, independent, Froebel, Waldorf, and Montessori. We purposefully examined these five school contexts to gamer diverse approaches to assessment that differently balance developmental and standards-based orientations. These five school contexts operate from varied perspectives related to pedagogy, curriculum, and child development, see Table 1 for explanation on school context orientations. Further, we classify early primary education as the period from junior kindergarten to Grade 3 (typically ages 4-8). The following research questions guided this study:

1. How do teachers within diverse contexts of early primary education describe their approaches to assessment?

2. What common themes exist between teachers' approaches to assessment?

We respond to these questions through an in-depth qualitative methodology that used teacher interviews and classroom observations with teachers from kindergarten to Grade 2 (i.e., ages 4-8, respectively) in Ontario, Canada. Results from this study identify diverse approaches to assessment within the contemporary context of early-years learning.


In Canada, education falls under provincial jurisdiction with each province having its own curriculum and assessment program, provision for early learning programing, and different ages for compulsory schooling. In most provinces, school is compulsory at age 6 (i.e., Grade 1); however, some provinces have compulsory kindergarten programming (e.g., Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island) whereas others offer optional programming (e.g., Quebec, Ontario, Alberta). Even in provinces where kindergarten is optional, most parents do enroll their child in kindergarten; for example, 90% of eligible children are enrolled in kindergarten programs in Ontario (Halton District School Board, 2013). This pattern of formal early schooling reflects international trends, including those in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Iceland, and Australia (Sharp, 2002).

The trend toward quality early-years programming is supported by significant research on the benefits of early primary education on students' future school success (Carnes & Albrecht, 2007; DeCesare, 2004). Specifically, research on early learning supports students' literacy development (Schmitt & Gregory, 2001; VanDerHeyden, Snyder, Broussard, & Ramsdell, 2008), school engagement through the arts (Smithrim & Upitis, 2005), increased health and environmental stewardship through school garden programs (Dyment & Bell, 2007; Upitis, Hughes, & Peterson, 2013), decreased bullying through safe schools initiatives (Beran & Tutti, 2002), and children's healthy emotional and social development (Denham, Bassett, & Zinsser, 2012). Inversely, research has also identified that negative school experiences, such as misbehavior or struggles with learning to read, prove detrimental to healthy brain development (Amsten, 2009; LeDoux, 2000), increase anxiety levels (Grills-Taquechel, Fletcher, Vaughn, & Stuebing, 2012; Jalongo & Hirsh, 2010), and contribute trajectories of academic underachievement and noncompletion in high school (Breslau et al., 2009; Duschesne, Vitaro, Larose, & Tremblay, 2007).

In addition to a strong research foundation, early programming trends are supported by standards-based learning frameworks that incorporate developmental approaches to teaching and learning. Play-based learning has emerged as a dominant structure in an effort to negotiate the integration of developmental approaches with standards-based frameworks. In Ontario, the Pascal report (2009), With Our Best Future in Mind, outlined a comprehensive approach to earlyyears programming in which play is prioritized as a central mode of learning that "capitalizes on children's natural curiosity and exuberance" (p. 26). In this approach, play-based learning is a developmentally appropriate strategy intended to address curricular learning expectations. The Ontario Full-Day Early Learning Kindergarten Program describes play-based learning as a guided strategy in which the Early-Learning Team (i.e., the teacher and early childhood educator) prompts students through questioning and encourages students to talk about their experiences of learning. The adult's active role in play-based learning explicates curricular connections and distinguishes play-based learning from other forms of play, such as free play (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a).

In addition to a play-based learning approach, educational contexts balance developmental learning and academic standards differently through their pedagogy and curriculum (Edwards, 2002). In Canada, educational funding falls into two categories: publicly funded and parentfunded schools (i.e., private, independent, and altemative/progressive schools). Although there is no single, unifying philosophy that guides publically funded education, the underlying belief is that a free, accessible, and high-quality education is a public good and civil right (Pascal, 2009). In recent years, there has been a nation-wide reform to publicly funded early-years programming that better reflects the needs of families with young children, that puts children at the center of curriculum and pedagogy, and that better integrates preschool, kindergarten, and early primary education (e.g., Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, 2010; New Brunswick Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, 2012; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007, 2010a; Pascal, 2009).

Parent-funded schools are schools in which parents pay directly for their child's education. Common terms for parent-funded schools include private school, independent school, and alternative or progressive school. Parent-funded schools are often guided by strong historical and pedagogical traditions, such as Waldorf, Montessori, or Froebel education. Although each of these latter three traditions espouse unique philosophies and methodologies, see Table 1 for pedagogical and philosophical distinctions, they do have commonalities, including commitments to creating aesthetic learning environments, child-centered programming, developmentally informed pedagogy, spiritual dimensions of learning, and a balanced sense of teaching to the whole child (Edwards, 2002). Differences in these approaches include fundamental beliefs in how children learn and how teachers teach, which shape instructional and assessment approaches.


Within the current accountability context of early primary education, teachers are now required to be assessment literate and to integrate assessments throughout their instruction to meet standards-based expectations and developmental goals (Gullo & Hughes, 2011; Stiggins, 2005). In its recently issued Early Learning Framework, the Ontario Ministry of Education has stipulated that quality early learning should integrate ongoing student assessment and systematic evaluation to inform instruction and pedagogy (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2007). Moreover, the Ministry stipulates that teachers should know how to use a variety of assessment strategies to measure and report on student learning within primary education contexts (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a, 2010b). This mandate for teacher assessment literacy is paralleled in other jurisdictions throughout Canada and in other countries, as well as across parent-funded educational contexts (i.e., private, independent, alternative, and progressive) (Volante & Ben Jaafar, 2008).

Despite requirements for teacher assessment literacy, little research has been conducted to support teachers in integrating assessments within early-years contexts (Roach, Wixson, & Talapatra, 2010). Instead, primary teachers are given more general frameworks for thinking about assessment that they must appropriate and negotiate within their context of practice. These general frameworks rely on the traditional diagnostic/formative/summative assessment sequence or its more contemporary characterization assessment for, as and of learning (Assessment Reform Group, 2002; Earl, 2003). Underpinning these frameworks of assessment is the notion that early assessment helps teachers and students identify learning gaps and goals to facilitate targeted instruction. Specifically, assessment for learning, and its subcomponent assessment as learning, involves actively engaging students in monitoring their own learning through self-, peer-, and instructor-based feedback (Assessment Reform Group, 2002), with the intention to promote learning about content standards as well as students' metacognitive and self-regulation abilities. Although assessment for learning approaches support the development of independent and autonomous learning, a central purpose of early primary education, they also have been closely aligned with standards-based education (Gardner, 2006). Student learning within this assessment model is driven toward preestablished educational standards with rigorous monitoring, planning, and continuous assessment. Therefore, though this model serves a standards-based orientation toward early primary education, teachers continue to negotiate it in relation to previously established developmental teaching orientations (Gullo & Hughes, 2011; Pyle & DeLuca, 2013).

In their study of three kindergarten teachers, Pyle and DeLuca (2013) described three profiles that depicted teachers' diverse approaches to assessment within the current context of Ontario education: (1) developmental assessment approach, (2) assessment for learning approach, and (3) blended assessment approach. Their study significantly found that though all teachers were committed to standards-based education, teachers maintained sufficient autonomy to negotiate assessment practices with their own personal pedagogical stance. Pyle and DeLuca framed their profiles in relation to contemporary assessment theory, recognizing that teachers' assessment practices fundamentally operated within a sociodevelopmental framework of learning that acknowledged classroom context, social interactions, and developmental learning continuums (Black & Wiliam, 2006; Brookhart, 2004). Their study also supported Gullo and Hughes' (2011) three principles for kindergarten assessment: (1) assessment should be a continuous process, (2) assessment should be a comprehensive process that involves multiple formats that yield information on diverse learning, and (3) assessment should be an integrated process with learning goals and instructional periods (i.e., assessment for learning).

Beyond the integration of formative assessments within early-years learning, teachers are required to report on student achievement through summative measures. Summative assessments differ widely across educational contexts, subject areas, and school contexts. Some contexts prioritize anecdotal records and teacher observations (e.g., Froebel, Montessori) whereas others include paper-and-pencil or standardized forms of assessment. For example, public and independent schools often use teacher-constructed assessments or standardized assessments to measure subject specific learning (e.g., Diagnostic Reading Assessment [DRA], PM Benchmark Assessments). In addition, provincial assessments begin as early as Grade 2 in Canada as measures to monitor students' literacy and numeracy achievement (Klinger et al., 2008). Varied priorities in assessment lead to diverse practices within Ontario early primary contexts as teachers endeavor to negotiate the measurement of student learning in relation to developmental and academic orientations.


To gain perspective on the research questions, data were collected through teacher interviews and classroom observations across five school contexts: public, independent, Froebel, Waldorf, and Montessori. Schools were located in central and southeastern Ontario, representing rural and urban contexts in economically advantaged and disadvantaged communities. Table 2 provides information related to the five school contexts used in this study.


Data were collected from 12 teacher participants across the five school contexts: 5 public teachers who taught junior kindergarten to Grade 1; 3 independent teachers who taught junior kindergarten, senior kindergarten, and Grade 1; 1 Froebel teacher who taught kindergarten; 2 Waldorf teachers who taught kindergarten and a Grade 1/2 combined class; and 1 kindergarten Montessori teacher. Teachers had a range of 5 to 25 years teaching experience. None of the teachers was newly appointed to their schools, and each had taught in the primary division for at least 5 years. Ten of the 12 teachers were women; with age ranges from 26 to 58 years. Teachers were recruited through professional networks and consented to participate in the study.

Data Collection and Analyses

Data were collected from teachers through two methods: in-depth interviews and ethnographic classroom observations (Patton, 2002). One hour, semistructured interviews with all 12 teachers focused on teachers' pedagogical beliefs related to the purpose of early-years education and their pedagogical orientation as well as their approach to student assessment. Interviews occurred in teachers' classrooms so that they could share samples of their curricula, pedagogies, and assessments. Interviews were transcribed verbatim, and participants were asked to confirm and/or change their responses through a member-checking process (Patton, 2002). All data collection protocols received university and school ethical clearance.

Based on interview data and to ensure sample size comparability, eight teachers were selected for classroom observations. Table 3 identifies the school contexts, number of classrooms observed, and grade level for observational data collection. A total of four observations were conducted in each classroom using a running-record protocol (Patton, 2002). Each observation was 3 hours in length, and field notes focused specifically on the teachers' approach to and practice of student assessment. Short follow-up interviews were conducted with each observed teacher to provide further rationale for their classroom practices.

Data from interviews and observations were analyzed conjointly for each school context. An open coding approach was used to first develop emergent codes from the data (Patton, 2002). Codes were then categorized into broader themes across school contexts (Charmaz, 2002; Patton, 2002). In total, 10 codes were identified and then organized into four overarching themes describing teachers' approaches to assessment. Data were coded by two reviewers; when data were coded differently by the two researchers, data were discussed and recoded. An inter-rater reliability value of 93% was achieved; in instances where quotations were miscoded, researchers engaged in a discussion about the quotation and its code. As our interest was to analyze early primary teachers' approaches to assessment rather than document assessment practices by school context, our themes represented approaches used across the five school contexts. Within our description of each theme, however, we specify the relationship between assessment practices and school contexts.


Data from interviews and classroom observations identified four themes related to teachers' approaches to assessment across the five school contexts: (1) diverse conceptions of assessment, (2) commitments to student-oriented assessment, (3) knowing children through a practice of observation, and (4) assessment of academic standards. Table 4 identifies the number of data points codified within each of these themes by school type and by specific code, providing an overall summary of the distribution and relative representation of themes across school contexts.

In describing overarching assessment themes that crosscut school contexts, it is important to recognize that each school type had unique pedagogical and philosophical discourses related to the purposes of early primary education and the structures of teaching and learning. For example, Waldorf educators describe balancing learning through the metaphor of a rhythm of in--and out-breath. In-breath activities are those that require a child to take in information, such as listening to a teacher tell a story; out-breath activities are those activities that invite children to create and express, such as play or outdoor exploration. Public teachers, on the other hand, follow a provincially mandated plan for a balanced day of equally timed literacy and numeracy instructional blocks with additional mandates for other disciplines. The unique discourses that shaped school contexts framed participants' descriptions of assessment. In responding to this study's aim, we aimed to respect contextual discursive traditions while articulating findings that underpinned common themes about teachers' approaches to assessment.

Diverse Conceptions of Assessment

In describing their approaches to assessment, teachers expressed three diverse conceptions and purposes within early primary education: (1) assessment as a growth trajectory, (2) assessment as a normative structure, and (3) assessment of the whole child.

Assessment as a growth trajectory. There was recognition across all teachers that assessments were used to determine student progress along growth and developmental trajectories. These trajectories were viewed as either linked to curriculum standards and expectations, as demonstrated more fully in public and independent contexts, or to student developmental goals, as evidenced in Waldorf, Froebel, and Montessori contexts. In a similar way, teachers within public and independent contexts felt a need to balance students' developmental trajectories with their growth toward mandated curriculum expectations. "In relation to reporting and curriculum expectations, they can only do what they can do. We just have to look at who they are right now and move from there as far as we can in the time we have" (public teacher). Although public and independent teachers maintained explicit commitments to teaching curriculum expectations, they were able to blend these expectations with student developmental readiness. Across all contexts, assessments were viewed as "snapshots" that highlighted learning along developmental and academic trajectories. One public teacher stated,
   I don't see assessment as a conflict because it's just a little
   snapshot of where students are at in that moment. Which is nice to
   see. They all move and grow. Even if they're behind, they still
   come forward from where they are.

Assessment as a normative structure. A second conception of assessment was its propensity to create normative comparisons and competitive learning contexts through leveled grading and reporting practices. Teachers recognized that leveled grades (i.e., A, B, C, D) were not effective communicative structures for describing students' growth trajectories. Across all contexts, teachers spoke about the negative influence of formal grading practices that emphasize normative comparisons. One public teacher noted,
   I know that at the end of the day we need to judge kids because
   we've got report cards but I've always been very uncomfortable with
   that. I need to say these kids are doing well, these kids are doing
   good, and these kids are doing just okay.

This same teacher described her use of Bump It Up Walls, a district-supported grading practice that shows kids where they are on their growth trajectory toward academic standards. In using these walls, she recognized that "Kids can look at other kids' work, grades, and feedback, and say: 'That's really scribbling, it's not wow work.' But they don't know that for some kids, scribbling is their wow work."

Underpinning these data is the recognition that although grading practices may be represented in policy and curriculum documents as criterion-referenced, they are still, fundamentally, normative structures that influence students' self-concepts and the classroom learning environment. Various public and independent teachers made these influences explicit recognizing their counter effect on creating safe, positive, and inclusive classroom spaces: "Grading creates a certain amount of pressure for kids to be successful in an assessment-leveled way" and "Report cards create competitive environments; they create a competition between students, which is contradictory when you are working very hard to develop the classroom as a cohesive cooperative safe place." The Froebel teacher noted that they don't give grades because of the comparative and normative element of grading,
   If I start comparing children using As and Bs, one might come up
   delayed. I don't see good value to children to know that they are
   an A or B student. Rather, our students compare themselves to their
   own performance.

Assessment Of the whole Child. The early primary educators in this study recognized that assessment in the early years was about reflecting on the whole child. Although teachers expressed specific content-based assessments, they commented that reporting and communicating student achievement was about "knowing your kids socially, personally, and academically, and commenting on the whole child" (public teacher). At the Froebel school, reports were written as anecdotes, "We basically write an essay of each child. We try to present a whole picture of each child in different areas." As recognized by one independent teacher, this conception of assessment and reporting differs from upper years education in which priority is placed principally on content specific achievement. Underpinning a whole-child approach to assessment and reporting was a commitment to child-oriented assessment practice predicated on observing and valuing students.

Commitments to Child-Oriented Assessment

All teachers stated a commitment to ensure that their assessment practices centered on students and their specific learning trajectories. Data on this theme were supported through two interconnected teacher practices that shaped assessment in early-years contexts: (1) explicitly valuing children as people and (2) being present to children.

Explicitly valuing children as people. Teachers across all school types observed that in their classrooms they strived to communicate to children that they were valued. One independent teacher explained that the most significant thing for children to learn in his class was "that they were important." The Froebel and Waldorf kindergarten teachers echoed this idea, stating, "At the heart of it, the message needs to be that children are valued for who they are" and "the children are the most important." The Montessori teacher described the act of holding value for children in terms of recognizing their unique qualities, "We have to honor the fact that children are very able and capable, and that each little person who comes through the door is unique and different." In this way, the idea of holding children capable is not one of standards-based accountability, but of recognizing children's capacities to function fully as people.

Being present to children. A second code that grounded assessment in knowing children was articulated through the ways in which teachers were "present to children." This idea of being present was articulated by the Waldorf and Froebel teachers as being an "energetic presence," and by the Montessori teacher as being a "pedagogical presence." During an informal conversation, the Waldorf Grade 1/2 teacher explained that, in keeping with the metaphor of rhythm, she takes a moment each morning to prepare herself for children by centering herself through her breath. She explained, "As an adult, I am always racing ahead to the next thing. But children live in the moment. That is where they need us to be." The Froebel teacher echoed this idea stating, "When you are with children, you need to be there in your presence. For that time, it is about their lives and what is going on with them." This idea of being pedagogically present to children was explained by the Montessori teacher through the following example:
   I am most focused in the moments when I sit down with a child to
   give them a lesson. It is a moment that can never be again. So when
   I sit down with a child, there is something very special between
   that child and I. In that moment, I might have an idea of direction
   I would like the child to go. But, ultimately, they show me which
   direction they are ready to go in, in that moment.

As this example highlights, teachers need to be pedagogical present to assess students' readiness for learning and development. By focusing on the child--valuing and being present to children-- primary teachers are able to individualize their assessment and instruction for learning.

Knowing Children Through a Practice of Observation

Teachers across contexts all expressed that quality assessment and resulting instructional decision-making was predicated on "knowing children through a practice of observation." The Montessori teacher explained the importance of observation by recounting an experience in her own Montessori training in which she was required to observe a lioness at a local zoo for two hours. She connected this experience to her classroom practice by stating:
   I think that from a scientific point of view, if a subject isn't
   observed, conclusions can't be drawn. Until you take the time to
   observe a child, I am not sure you are well equipped to make
   conclusions about what directions that child could go in, what
   their interests might be.

Specifically, data supported observation as an informal and formal practice that was fundamental to teachers' assessment of learners.

Teachers across contexts leveraged informal observations, which occurred during relational activities, play-based learning (in alignment with Ontario Ministry of Education guidelines and Waldorf and Froebel philosophies; see literature review above), and snack time, to learn about their students. Informal observations involved teachers cultivating learning relationships with their students that allowed them to be part of students' learning. For example, the Waldorf Grade 1/2 teacher explained, "I am always opening my eyes to the many different ways children learn with me and with other students." The Froebel teacher shared that her "greatest moments of happiness as a teacher are when I can go on a journey of learning with the children." The idea of developing a learning relationship was also addressed by the public teachers in relation to conversational opportunities generated through play-based learning: "I love that with children, having those one-to-one moments where we have such an interesting conversation and I can really go into greater depth with their ideas" (public teacher). Similarly, independent and Waldorf teachers used snack time to engage in informal observations of students: "I eat snack with my students because it is an important time to chat and hear all about their lives" (independent teacher).

In contrast to informal observation practices, teachers engaged in various structured observational processes to assess their students' learning and developmental needs, which they referred to as the "products" of observation. In keeping with discursive traditions that framed the different school contexts, the Froebel, Waldorf, and Montessori teachers articulated their observations through a holistic approach of understanding a child's developmental learning needs (i.e., growth of child's personal social, cognitive, and psychomotor development), whereas the public and independent teachers articulated their observations as a targeted approach associated with curricular learning and classroom activities. For example, the Waldorf kindergarten teacher described the school-wide practice of "child-study observation." A child-study is when the entire faculty observes one child, in all aspects of schooling, for 2 weeks. The teacher noted that this is "purely observational; there is no judgment." Then, the faculty meets to share their observations of the child with the aim of formulating a "helping question," asked from the child's perspective. This question is designed to help the teacher understand what it is the child is asking for and what that child's learning needs are. Similarly, the public teachers spoke of observing children as a source of information to help them modify and enhance learning centers, "We watch and listen to the kids. We write down everything we see and hear. The kids give us so many ideas about what to do differently, because we will see them doing things that we hadn't thought about."

Additional structured observational processes included (1) using an observation chair, (2) engaging in a process of "stepping out" of the action in order to observe, and (3) writing observational records and anecdotes. One public kindergarten teacher explained, "We are stepping out so that we might step in, in a way that works best for the children." The Froebel teacher explained that for her, observation meant "listening and observing, and then drawing out the child." The Montessori teacher described a two-part process of observation that helped her know when children were ready for next learning steps:
   First, I have to keep very detailed records as to what they have
   been shown and how often they have repeated it, and if I feel they
   are ready. Then, I have to take advantage of those moments when I
   notice they are ready, and direct their energy into an area where
   they will be successful.

All teachers in this study commented that they needed to couple their observations with developmental learning theory to inform their instructional planning and decision making to support student growth toward curriculum priorities, including academic standards. One public kindergarten teacher spoke about this in terms of knowing how to connect her observations of children's learning while at play with curriculum mandates:
   Developmentally, learning takes time. The child that continuously
   goes to cars or blocks is what they need right now. They are
   learning to balance blocks on top of each other, or make something
   taller. Or that a car can zoom over a bump in the carpet. And these
   things are not in the curriculum. But actually, they are, because
   the child is learning that "taller" means "more," or how to
   interact socially with others.

Assessment of Academic Standards

This final theme emerged in response to the growing emphasis on academic standards, mainly in public and independent school contexts. However, this theme also impacted Froebel, Montessori, and Waldorf contexts through societal and parental expectations. One public teacher acknowledged, "There has been such a swing in education towards academics that kids must know what four times four is, and that is the most important thing... . We're always moving towards the academics." An independent teacher echoed this point, stating, "Certainly since I've been teaching, expectations have gotten higher and higher. There's a perception that standardized testing and the certainty of scores means that you're going to be successful later on." Three codes emerged from across contexts on how teachers addressed increased academic expectations: (1) child first, then academics; (2) participatory and embodied assessment; and (3) visual representation of growth toward standards.

Child first, then academics. Although teachers in all contexts valued teaching academic concepts and related skills, they all recognized that in early years, the teacher must begin by knowing the student and initially working from a developmental position. There was general recognition that since "much of academic learning comes from the kids versus coming from the teacher" (public teacher), that teachers must be responsive to students' developmental readiness when teaching and assessing academic standards. The Montessori teacher stated, "I have to actually know, by observing that child, that they are developmentally ready for the next step, for the next level of learning." Similarly, the Froebel teacher noted, "The way you approach the academic ends is very much related to their [students'] characters. You need to know where they are." In addition, teachers acknowledged that they must create classroom conditions that centered on children feeling safe to learn, to be observed, and to share their learning. One public teacher commented, "None of the other academic things really matter until you have comfort, safety, and those social factors taken care of. And then comes in all the cognitive learning." She continued by recognizing that her "academic focus [in kindergarten] was on helping them understand that they can do academics. And to learn to like trying to do it." In this way, kindergarten teachers focused their academic instruction on introducing the concept of academic learning and ensuring that students had the self-confidence to engage in academic learning. The Grade 1 and 2 teachers in public and independent school contexts were more cognizant of academic pressure and moved students toward more traditional assessment practices sooner. "I am trying to do more paper and pencil tasks with the grade Is because the other grade 1 class does a lot more of that, and I don't want them to be floored when they go to Grade 2" (public teacher).

Participatory and embodied assessment. In describing assessment practices that were child centered yet evaluating academic standards, many teachers described participatory and embodied forms of teaching and assessment. These forms of assessment were viewed as fitting in with the natural rhythm within classrooms with teachers able to observe student growth and development. By participatory and embodied assessments, teachers would use individual or group oral assessments, physical activities and observations, group work and paired tasks, song, play, and movement. In the public context, teachers described assessments and academic standards through participatory discussions and play activities: "We talk about whatever our literacy learning goal is, then I observe them in their play-based literacy centers." Another public teacher stated that she uses "lots of games that are really oral based. The theory is that if you can do it orally eventually you'll do it on paper and I can assess it." A similar, scaffolded and embodied process to teaching, learning, and assessing academic standards was described by one independent teacher:
   With letters we'll sing about it, talk about it, bring in things
   starting with the letter, practice it in the sand, write it really
   big on the chart, and then eventually we'll practice it on a small
   piece of paper.

The Froebel, Waldorf, and Montessori contexts intentionally described teaching and assessment that was not paper-based but rather was physical, oral, and play based. Teachers in these contexts contended, "Children need to learn through their senses and represent learning through their sense" (Froebel teacher). The Waldorf Grade 1/2 teacher stated that in her school, "Math is a very physical process in the primary grades. Their bodies are engaged right from the very beginning with counting and number recitation." She provided an example of having students skip count their times tables from 1 to 12: "Every single day, when we skip, each student counts aloud their times tables before being tangled in the rope." The Waldorf teacher provided a rational for embodied learning, stating:
   We want them to learn to see and trust their bodies because if they
   don't trust their bodies then they're always in a state of fight or
   flight, a little bit of uncertainty. It's like, "I'm not sure what
   I can do," and then they don't feel like they can take risks when
   it comes to things like literacy.

Visual representation of growth toward standards. Visual representation and growth trajectories toward academic standards were evident in public and independent classrooms. Teachers identified student growth charts, Bump It Up Walls, learning goals, and success criteria boards as visual signifiers of academic standards and targets for student learning. The public classrooms observed featured a number of anchor charts and performance wall posters. Teachers were sensitive that these visual representations needed to be understood by students and would therefore represent learning targets through "pictures, symbols, and other visual images" (public teacher). Teachers recognized that these visual representations of academic standards served several functions, including supporting student learning, signaling adherence to provincial and board-sponsored best practices, and providing transparency regarding the teaching and learning that was occurring in the classroom.


The purpose of this research was to explore teachers' approaches to student assessment across diverse contexts of early primary education. In particular, we were interested in the common themes that supported teachers' assessment approaches within a negotiated, developmental, and academic context of early-years learning. We specifically chose to explore teachers' assessment approaches rather than teachers' assessment practices, because we did not want to identify a prescriptive list of assessment techniques or strategies. Instead, we aimed to communicate broader assessment commitments and themes cross-cutting early primary contexts. In addition, we purposefully used five diverse educational contexts to garner teachers' views from multiple pedagogical and philosophical traditions and different developmental and academic priorities.

Data from this study suggested that primary educators share common approaches to assessment in the early years despite their diverse educational contexts. Although specific assessment practices and the balance between developmental and academic standards shifted from teacher to teacher, all of the early primary educators maintained commitments to (1) student-centered assessments, (2) knowing children through a practice of observation, and (3) the teaching of academic knowledge and skills. These teachers were astutely able to understand diverse conceptions of assessment for both local, classroom purposes (e.g., assessment for learning, communicating learning to parents, snapshot assessments) and, more broadly, in relation to systemic priorities, functions, and purposes (e.g., accountability, transparency). Generally, teachers believed that assessments in the primary grades should seamlessly integrate into classroom routines and rhythms and fold into play-based and other pedagogical approaches. This finding aligns with Gullo and Hughes' (2011) recommendation for continuous, integrated assessment within kindergarten classrooms.

All teachers were committed to using assessments to measure and promote learning of academic knowledge and skills, though academic standards were viewed and prioritized differently across contexts of education. Public and independent teachers emphasized ministry-based academic curricula more heavily than did teachers of Froebel, Montessori, or Waldorf traditions. However, despite their mandate to teach academic curricula, public and independent teachers expressed the importance of starting from a developmental stance and targeting teaching to students' individual developmental needs related to social, personal, and academic dimensions of learning. Froebel, Montessori, and Waldorf teachers believed that students would still learn academic standards through developmentally appropriate activities but that academic standards did not need to be explicitly sequenced for instruction. Regardless of educational tradition, teachers from all contexts recognized that in early primary education, academic standards do not need to be measured or assessed through paper-based traditional tasks (i.e., testing) but are better measured through alternative forms of assessment that were embodied and participatory. There was, however, recognition that in Grades 1 and 2 students needed greater exposure to traditional forms of assessment to ensure readiness for upper years education.

As teachers in this study support assessment as an embodied, participatory, and integrated practices within primary classrooms, we support Katz's (2007) articulation that, rather than teaching and assessing academic standards in early primary education, teachers may find value in reframing their efforts in terms of teaching and assessing "standards of experience." Katz argued that all students develop along multiple growth trajectories promoted through varied educational experiences that attend to diverse aspects of child and human development. For example, the Waldorf practice of kneading bread dough each week in kindergarten strengthens fingers and contributes to the development of fine motor muscles, which facilitates a strong tripod grip and ease of printing in Grade 1. Ultimately, Katz suggested that planning learning experiences, rather than planning for academic learning, aligns the developmental, standards-based, and academic frameworks of early primary education. The articulated commitments of teachers in this study and our classroom observations provided empirical support that early primary educators who are able to negotiate developmental and academic orientations intuitively plan for and assess standards of experience, as unified, embodied, and developmentally engaging activities.

Underpinning teachers' core approaches to assessment were two fundamental pedagogical commitments: (1) early primary teachers ascribed to a whole-child teaching approach and (2) early primary teachers engaged in a continuous practice of student observation. All teachers demonstrated a commitment to teaching to the child as a whole, what the Froebel teachers described as "the total child." This commitment recognized children as being people in their own right and connected to the value, respect, and care that teachers held for their students. In terms of assessment, this commitment allowed teachers to assess students holistically (Carr, 2006; Moss, 1994) for their developmental and academic progress. In alignment with previous research on establishing validity in classroom assessments (Moss, 1994, 2003), teachers recognized that having theoretical knowledge about child development coupled with specific knowledge about their students (i.e., interests, abilities, development) was key to making informed instructional and programmatic decisions based on valid assessments. Overall, teachers viewed a holistic representation of student development and achievement as more congruent with their roles as educators of young children and the informational needs of parents. This finding is particularly interesting given recent mandates in upper years education that encourage the parsing of academic growth and learning skills development as well as the use of standards-based analytic scoring rubrics (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010b). Accordingly, we see this as an important avenue for future research: to explore the extent to which upper years' assessment logic aligns with primary level pedagogy, curriculum, and whole-child assessment approaches. To this end, there may be value in pursuing the development of assessment theory specifically appropriate to early primary learning contexts.

The second fundamental pedagogical commitment that underpinned teachers' assessment approaches was a practice of continuous student observation. Aligned with previous research on core primary assessment practices (Wragg, 2001), observation was viewed as the central process for generating valid holistic assessments of student learning and as a basis for instructional decision making. Teachers described both formal and informal observational processes that helped them learn about students' personal, social, and academic needs. Interestingly, teachers expressed play-based pedagogies as a key opportunity to observe students' growth and development, and as an opportunity to develop learning relationships with students. Given the recent introduction of play-based learning within Ontario's early education strategy, and more broadly in other jurisdictions (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2010a; Pascal, 2009), this research suggests future studies should extend the linkage between observation and play-based learning as a seminal structure for learning about students. Formal structures of observations (e.g., observation chair, anecdotal records, and child study) were suggested as significant opportunities for holistic appraisals of learner profiles that enabled teachers to "step out" of the action to assess students. Paired, formal, and informal observation processes allow teachers to observe students through close relationship building and at a distance. These two proximities for observation may be fundamental to establishing confidence in teachers' assessments of student growth and development.

Although results from this study are compelling, we do recognize that generalizations are limited, given the relatively small sample size for each educational context. We also assert the caveat that this research only reflects the perspectives of early primary teachers in Ontario and not students, parents, administrators or other educational stakeholders. Accordingly, we caution that findings should be interpreted with the understanding that data were contextually based and not widely generalizable. To this end, we assert that this research is intended to provide an initial basis for developing empirical support for primary teachers' approaches to assessment as they negotiate developmental and academic priorities. Despite these limitations, this research offers a foundation for continued inquiry into early primary assessment, particularly additional studies that explore teachers' approaches across diverse contexts (jurisdictional, publicly funded, and parent funded) with specific focus on the development of structures and habits for student observation. We also see value in pursuing case study and more generalizable research that explores the intersection of teaching and assessment in play-based pedagogical contexts, alternative educational traditions, and systems of high accountability. Our aim in promoting this research agenda is to support teachers in using assessments that bridge developmental and academic priorities and that positively enhance the learning culture in early primary classrooms.


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DOI: 10.1080/02568543.2014.944722

Christopher DeLuca

Queen's University, Kingston, Canada

Scott Hughes

Mount Royal University, Calgary, Canada

Authors ordered alphabetically to indicate equal authorship.

Submitted July 14, 2013; accepted January 23, 2014.

Address correspondence to Christopher DeLuca, Faculty of Education, Queen's University, 511 Union Street, A218, Kingston, ON K7M 5R7, Canada. E-mail:

Pedagogical and Philosophical Distinctions of Froebel,
Montessori, and Waldorf Education

                  Guiding        View of Children       Role of the
                Philosophy                                Teacher

Froebel      * Three guiding     * Childhood as a    * Teacher as
             principles: (a)     protected phase     "cultivator" and
             unity of natural,   of life             protector of
             spiritual, and                          childhood
             human dimensions;   * Children have a
             (b) centrality of   natural             * To observe and
             family; and (c)     inclination to      draw out the
             play as a           care for plants,    child's learning
             fundamental mode    animals, and
             of learning         their environment   * To know how to
                                                     use the gifts and
             * Use of                                occupations
             materials and
             activities called
             gifts and

Montessori   * Learning is a     * Childhood as a    * Teachers as
             natural process     protected phase     "guide" (i.e.,
             stemming from the   of life             Directrice) and
             intrinsic                               protector of
             interests of the    * Children are      childhood
             child * Children    naturally
             learn by being      spiritual,          * To carefully
             purposefully        inquisitive, and    prepare the
             engaged in          capable             learning
             self-selected                           environment
             activities          * With time and
                                 space, children     * To know the use
                                 will choose tasks   of didactic
                                 appropriate to      materials
                                 their development
                                                     * To observe and

Waldorf      * Nursery and       * Childhood as a    * Teacher as
             kindergarten is a   protected phase     "loving
             time of harmony,    of life             authority" and
             beauty, nurturing                       protector of
                                 * Children grow     childhood
             * Aim of            through three
             education is to     seven-year          * To create an
             develop the whole   developmental       environment of
             child as a free     cycles              natural materials
             and creative
             thinker             * In early          * To be an
                                 childhood (i.e.,    exemplary model
             * Rhythm of in-     ages 0-7)
             and out-breath      children learn      * To foster the
             activities infuse   through             child's
             each day, week,     imitation,          imagination
             and school year     embodied            through oral
                                 experiences, and    storytelling and
             * Hands-on, arts-   their               play
             and outdoors-       imaginations
             based integrated
             curriculum term,

Sources. Brosterman (1997) and Follari (2007).


                 Description of Research Sites

Context                                 Details

Public         * Four public schools in Southeastern Ontario: two
                 of the schools were in economically disadvantaged,
                 urban communities; one school was located in an
                 economically stable, suburban community; one was
                 located in a small rural community

               * Student populations ranged from 250-500 students

               * Used Ontario Ministry of Education (OME) curriculum

               * All teachers maintained provincial teaching

Independent    * Founded in 1972 by parents who wanted their children
                 in a caring, arts-focused school

               * Situated in an economically advantaged neighborhood
                 in a large Canadian city

               * Coeducational and accredited by the Canadian
                 Accredited Independent Schools association

               * Approximately 300 junior kindergarten through Grade 7

               * Used the OME curriculum as a basis for their

               * All teachers maintained provincial teaching

Waldorf        * Founded in 1996 by a group of parents

               * One of 2,500 accredited Waldorf schools around the

               * Situated in economically mixed neighborhood, downtown
                 in a midsized Canadian city

               * Approximately 120 kindergarten through Grade 8

               * Offer four early childhood programs: parent & infant,
                 parent & child, preschool, kindergarten

               * Waldorf classes taught by a lead teacher and an
                 assistant teacher

               * Waldorf educators maintain provincial teaching
                 certification with additional Waldorf training

Froebel        * Founded in 1970 as an independent, private school

               * Located in a large suburban Canadian city

               * Froebel education is unique, in that the terms
                 kindergarten and school are used to denote specific
                 grade ranges. Kindergarten is for children ages 3
                 to 7 (i.e., JK to Grade 2) and school is for children
                 ages 8 through 12 (i.e., Grades 3-8).

               * Population of approximately 30 students in
                 kindergarten and school

               * The early learning team was composed of three
                 provincially certified teachers, all with extensive
                 training in Froebel methodology and philosophy

Montessori     * Montessori situated in a private school located
                 downtown in a small Canadian city

               * Montessori program offered to children from ages
                 years to 6, whereupon they transition to a
                 non-Montessori Grade 1 class

               * Class had 12 children

               * Directress had provincial teaching certification and
                 received her Montessori training from Renilda
                 Montessori, Maria Montessori's granddaughter

Note. JK = Junior Kindergarten.


Classroom Observation Data Collections

                  Number of
School Context     Observed              Grades Observed

Public                2        JK/SK combined
Independent           2        JK and SK
Froebel               1        K-2
Waldorf               2        Kindergarten and grade 1/2 combined
Montessori            1        Kindergarten

Note. JK = Junior Kindergarten; SK = Senior Kindergarten.


Frequencies of Coded Data by School Context

                                               School Context

Themes & Codes                        Public   Independent   Waldorf

Diverse conceptions of assessment      136         57          78
Assessment as a growth trajectory       22          5          13
Assessment as a normative structure     69         23          16
Assessment of the whole child           45         29          49
Commitments to student-oriented         33         25          21
Valuing children                        19         17          13
Being present to children               14          8           8
Practice of observation                 52         22          24
Informal observation                    26         10          10
Formal observation                      26         12          14
Assessment of academic standards       185         88          109
Child first, then academics             87         39          53
Participatory and embodied              75         45          56
Visual representation of standards      23          4           0

                                                School Context

Themes & Codes                        Froebel   Montessori   Total

Diverse conceptions of assessment       25          23        319
Assessment as a growth trajectory        6          1         47
Assessment as a normative structure      9          8         125
Assessment of the whole child           10          14        147
Commitments to student-oriented         21          17        117
Valuing children                        10          3         62
Being present to children               11          14        55
Practice of observation                 11          21        130
Informal observation                     7          6         59
Formal observation                       4          15        71
Assessment of academic standards        44          26        452
Child first, then academics             23          17        219
Participatory and embodied              21          9         206
Visual representation of standards       0          0         27
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Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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