Early Years Assessment and Learning Tool

The Victorian Government is investing $22 million to support early childhood educators to plan and deliver quality education programs. This includes the development of an Early Years Assessment and Learning Tool (the Tool) to enhance best practice in the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Practice Principle, Assessment for Learning and Development.

The Early Years Assessment and Learning Tool will enable educators in Three and Four-Year-Old Kindergarten programs to:

  • observe and assess children’s learning and development
  • be intentional in their teaching practice and identify suitable next steps for program planning.

Tool development

The University of Melbourne worked with about 120 early childhood teachers across Victoria in 2020 to develop the Tool. The Tool's development built on the extensive research to create the Early ABLES suite and has been validated for use with all children in kindergarten programs. 

There are eight assessment modules in the Tool that align with the five Learning and Development Outcomes in the VEYLDF and map to the Victorian Curriculum.

There are eight assessment modules in the Tool that align with the five Learning and Development Outcomes in the VEYLDF and map to the Victorian Curriculum.

The eight modules in the Tool are:

  • Identity and community - social
  • Wellbeing - emotion
  • Learning dispositions
  • Communication - interactions
  • Communication - symbols and text
  • Learning and communication - Numeracy
  • Wellbeing - movement
  • Learning and identity - thinking skills

Modules are completed separately and at different points in time.  They are designed to be used more than once to capture the learning and development of individual children over time and support the continuity of their learning.

Tool pilot

The Tool was further refined as an outcome of the pilot throughout 2021 in over 50 kindergarten services across Inner Eastern Melbourne, Goulburn, Inner North Eastern Melbourne and Loddon Campaspe. The pilot sought to understand kindergarten teachers' use of the Tool in everyday practice in Three-Year-Old and Four-Year-Old Kindergarten programs.

The pilot was independently evaluated and focussed on understanding:

  • how easy the Tool is for early childhood teachers to use
  • what professional learning and support is required
  • the Tool's impact on intentional teaching practices and program planning. 

Using assessment tools in early childhood

One of the early childhood teachers involved in developing the Early Years Learning and Assessment Tool in 2020 joined a department led panel at the Early Childhood Australia National Conference 2021 as part of a discussion on Assessment for learning: Why do it? What does it look like?

The panel explored the purpose of assessment and the role of the Tool in building educator capacity. They also share their practice expertise on what quality assessment looks like in everyday practice. This includes involving families in assessment and the importance of quality documentation, as well as touching on the role of checklists in early childhood.

Video transcript

Good morning everyone. I would like to welcome you to our presentation today. A topic that brings really passionate responses, and therefore a topic really well worth discussing. Assessment for learning: What does it look like? Why do we do it? I join you today from the lands of the Wurundjeri. And of course before I start the panel discussion today, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we're meeting and pay my sincerest respects to elders past, present and emerging and extend those respects to any Aboriginal people watching this presentation. 

Before we get into today's important discussion, I'd like to introduce the panel members. As mentioned, my name is Tor Polding, and I am the Manager of the Assessment for Learning Team here at the Department of Education and Training in Victoria. A passionate advocate of assessment in Early Childhood. I'd also like to introduce my Director Pippa Procter, who is the Director of the Early Learning and Development Reform Branch, overseeing a number of reforms on Pedagogy and Practice in Early Childhood. We have Sue Robb, General Manager of Pedagogy and Practice at Goodstart Early Learning, responsible for Early Childhood Services across Australia. And Sue brings a wealth of experience both from here in Australia, but also from the UK. 

We have Dr Jane Page from the University of Melbourne, and I have the absolute pleasure of working closely with Jane at the moment on a project here in Victoria to develop a new assessment tool that Pippa will talk about in a little bit more detail shortly. Jane continues to share her wealth of practice expertise with early childhood teachers in the academic space as well as across a range of projects to ensure that children have access to quality education programs. A few of us on the panel here today have teaching in our past lives, but last but not least, Annette McKenzie joins us as a Director and an actual teacher at Coronation Kindergarten in Wangaratta, which will be an all-important voice in the discussion today about what assessment means in everyday practice. It's worth noting that Annette joined us last year as part of the project to develop the tool I mentioned along with about 120 teachers across Victoria. So hopefully, she will also be able to provide us with some insights on that experience as well. 

Now I know everyone will be keen for us to start discussing this important topic. But before we do, I'd like to hand to Pippa Procter, as I said the Director of Early Learning and Development Reform here at the Department, to talk a little bit more about how assessment fits into Victoria's ambitious reform agenda, and specifically about the current project that we have to develop a new tool, Pippa. 

- Thanks Tor and lovely to be here to have this conversation with you all. I also want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the many lands on which we are all on today, but also want to acknowledge the commitment that you are making today to your learning and particularly, about learning more about this important area of assessment for learning. Similar to Tor, a very strong passion of mine. So it's my job to give you a bit of an intro about our Victorian context, and whilst many of you on the conference today may already be aware of this, some may not. 

In Victoria we have the privilege of the government making a significant contribution to our Early Childhood area most recently in the form of universal access to Three-Year-Old Kindergarten for all of Victoria's children. This very ambitious and much welcomed reform came with it a range of investments around a number of programs and initiatives to support early childhood educators to plan and deliver a quality program. This exists both within our new Three-Year-Old universal platform, but also across our great kindergarten system which encompasses programs for three and four-year-olds. So within the range of investments that were made, we were very privileged to receive some funding to develop an Early Years Assessment and Learning Tool for kindergartens. This project, being led by some of my esteemed colleagues on the panel and most notably Tor who's made this introduction, is a great initiative that really aims to build the capacity of educators as I mentioned in Three and Four-Year-Old Kindergarten. This is very much an assessment tool for learning. It is very much designed to support our amazing teachers and educators in our kindergarten programs, meet the range of aims outlined on the slide here. It's really focused on practice. 

So as highlighted in particularly the first three columns here, it's aimed to support educators in how they document and assess children's learning, how they are developing those incredible educational programs that support children's learning, and those intentional individual learning plans. What it's also really exciting to talk about is how this tool will be looking to support the information sharing between kindergartens and other service providers. 

Victoria has a long, strong, proud tradition of looking at continuity of learning across our services. And the role that this tool may play in terms of supporting children and their continuity of learning as they transition across different services at this critical point in their development is something that we know this tool will be able to make a great contribution to. So that gives you a bit of a summary of what we're doing in Victoria and the tool that we're focused on developing. I'm sure the panel will talk a bit more about it in detail as we go through our questions. But I'll hand back to you Tor now to continue the discussion.

- Thanks Pippa, exciting work indeed. Very exciting times here in Victoria. But I think it's really important that we get straight to the heart of the matter and why we're here today. To answer that somewhat controversial, but important question, 'why do assessment?' And Annette, I'd like to start with you if that's okay as someone who is living this daily to provide some insights to us.

 - Thanks Tor, well for me, the purpose of assessment is to help to determine a child's current knowledge and development and to facilitate further learning and development based on the evidence of the observations. It's to support and respond to a child's ability and respond as teachers and educators to meaningfully support children's learning. So for me it's the difference between educating and entertaining children. Understanding and working with the planning cycle supports assessment and provides an avenue to track and gauge a child's development across the five learning and development outcomes of the VEYLDF, and also the developmental domains. 

So it supports us to know the children's strengths and interests, and then we use both intentional and spontaneous teaching strategies to extend the child through those strengths and interests. It provides evidence to identify areas of learning and/or development that may benefit from support and encouragement, and therefore promotes that cycle of planning and learning. So we observe, we identify, we reflect, we plan, we implement the identified strategies, and then we begin this cycle again to monitor any changes in a child's learning behaviour and skill development. However, there has been no common assessment instrument in Early Childhood, and therefore, assessment has not always necessarily been consistent. 

Having participated in the tool trial phase, we looked at a common tool. So I see the tool as an assessment instrument that could be used for some, or for all of the children in our groups. After answering a series of questions based on our knowledge and observations of individual children, the tool generates a report including links to the Learning and Development Frameworks, and also suggested strategies that can be used with the child. The strategies suggested may very well become common to more than one child and can be implemented immediately from the time the report is generated. And it can also be shared between all the staff working with that child so that everyone is working towards the same outcomes. It generates a bank of strategies that we can use throughout the year and then also pass on as children move on to school. So while the version that we used in the trial phase was time consuming to complete for each child, I expect that, as it's being piloted in the next phase, there may very well be refinements which will reduce the time required.

 And then of course, as it's used over time, we will become more familiar with the tool and then this will also reduce the time taken to complete it. I believe one of the biggest advantages of the tool is that the tool itself generates the report, and it uses consistent language, language that is common among a variety of early childhood professionals that may work with that child, such as when we speak to a preschool field officer to seek support or specialist children's services, or as children transition to primary school, the report can be shared with the foundation teachers, and also when discussing a child's development and outcomes with parents. So regardless of where a child attends their early childhood service, there is a consistent common language being used when sharing with other professionals. So, I guess for me too, the assessment is to help each child to just reach their full potential. 

- Thanks Annette, some great insights there and great to hear that, you know, your experience of developing the tool, that you found it a valuable one. Sue, I'm aware that you're less familiar with the tool itself, but wondering if you could reflect on some of the points that Annette's raised about the cycle, the importance of the cycle and this idea of consistent and common language being key.

- Thanks Tor, hello everybody. For me, the shot that we have on the screen is not quite complete. Because for me, you cannot assess without the word 'planning'. So for me it's got to be about assessment and planning and that's what Annette made very clear and how this tool was supporting her educators, but more importantly, the children. Because at the heart of planning and assessment, is ensuring that children make the progress in their learning, which they have the right to make. 

Without really high quality appropriate assessment, it's extraordinarily difficult to fulfill that responsibility that we have as educators. And key to real, high quality assessment as Annette alluded to is the consistency. The consistency in approaches, consistency to ensure that children are making that progress against the outcomes in any framework, whether it's the VEYLDF or whatever curriculum that any educator is working with. Thanks Tor. 

- Thanks Sue, so I think you know there's obviously a sense here that people think is assessment's important, it's tied to planning, that we're all very much focused on children at the centre of this, but I think we should perhaps delve a little bit deeper as to what we mean by assessment and what actually quality assessment looks like in practice. 

So Sue, I wonder if you could expand a little bit on what you were saying and share some of your reflections on what quality assessment really looks like so that we can ensure that we're meaningfully tracking children's progress in the way that you suggest. 

- Thanks, so for me, quality assessment is appropriate assessment for the development and stages which our young children are at in their lives. So that for me, for formative assessment, is absolutely rooted in high quality observation of children's learning. And again, and Annette was speaking about that key component within the Victorian tool and really supporting our educators and teachers in observing children's learning.

 And too with their knowledge, that knowledge that our educators and teachers bring against child development, against the development stages, against the curriculum, you can then plan a child's next learning steps. Obviously, high quality assessment is more than just that relationship between the educator, the teacher and the child and involves many other players in it. And I'm sure Jane is well placed to speak about the role of families and professionals in high quality assessment. 

- Thanks Sue. And Jane, it would be great if you could do just that please in providing a bit more insight in what this quality assessment practice really looks like, and how it involves families. Thank you Tor and Sue. Yes, quality assessment I believe involve engaging in conversations with children, families and carers about children's learning and development. I think we really develop multi-faceted, nuanced, and holistic understandings of children's learning and development when we engage in these conversations with children, families and carers. Indeed, multiple perspectives on children's learning complement our expert knowledge and support us to analyse the evidence we've collected in children's learning and development and to plan purposeful and meaningful learning experiences that reflect children's interests and capabilities and extend their learning. 

Children are experts on their learning. And when we ask children what they are learning, we gain powerful insights into their experiences of learning which in turn tests our assumptions on what we believe children are learning and the practices that support children's learning. And when we incorporate children's perspectives on their learning into our educational programs, we are also at the same time supporting children to experience agency in the learning process as they see and experience their ideas being acted on, build strong identities as learners, and engage in meaningful learning experiences that meet and extend their interests and capabilities. 

And as Sue said, families and carers are children's first teachers and as such, experts in children's learning experiences and interests at home and in the broader community. And these insights complement our knowledge of children. So when we share evidence of children's learning with families and carers and listen to their perspectives of children's learning at our service, at home and in community, we build a more holistic picture and deeper understanding of individual children, and are better able to make informed decisions on what children are ready to learn, to develop meaningful learning goals for individual children and to enact meaningful learning experiences that reflect children's interests and capabilities.

So from my perspective, quality assessment involves creating the time and space to have conversations with children, families and carers about children's learning and listening and incorporating these perspectives into planned learning goals and learning experiences. Engaging with children, families and carers about children's learning and development I believe, deepens our understanding of what children know, understanding can do, which in turn informs our analysis of what children are ready to learn in our planning for children.

 - Thanks Jane. I'm hearing lots of comments about making observations and drawing in all the people around the child and words like analysis. And I really want to pick up on something that you just mentioned Jane around evidence, and get a bit into the nitty-gritty of how what we're describing actually translates in practice. I'm aware that lots of teachers and educators will be listening to this and agreeing, but I think it's important that we unpack a little bit more about what we're talking about in practice on the day-to-day and perhaps bring up one of those slightly taboo and somewhat contentious words: checklists. And I'm going to pass to you Pippa to really delve a bit deeper into this word and whether or not we think when we're trying to find evidence and record evidence and have those discussions with families and carers as Jane has suggested, do checklists have a place? 

- Thanks Tor, the polarising topic of checklists. And a debate that has been raging and for very good reason amongst our profession for such a long time. So what are we talking about when we're talking about checklists? These are the lists of behaviours and skills that most children demonstrate at a given point in their development, what we might refer to as typical development. 

Commonly, they are used as a tool to evaluate children's learning progress at a point in time. But before I go into the role they play and offer some possibly controversial views, which is all part of this great debate, I think it's really important to reflect on some of the views that have been shared as part of the discussion about the role of assessment. I really echo Sue's comment that you can't talk about assessment in isolation. It is very much part of the planning process, and at its core, it's part of what being an early childhood educator is all about. It's about you as a professional understanding where children are at with their learning, and then planning for its growth and you really can't do that without assessing where a child is in their learning pathway and drawing on an understanding of what a learning pathway may look like. 

As Jane's mentioned, it's about children's pathways of knowledge, understanding skills and capabilities, which we all know in an Early Childhood context is not linear. There is not one way for all to go through and these pathways do not all look the same. In fact, they often may never look the same. And it is in this, the great strength of our profession is highlighted, the capacity for us to recognise the individualism in children's learning and what an incredible and admirable capacity there is to plan for a program that reflects that. It's important to acknowledge here that we do have clear goals for children's learning. Our Early Years Learning Framework, and in Victoria, our Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework provide great descriptors on the goals for what we want for children. They outline what we want children to understand, know and be able to do. And the way that it is described in these frameworks and it's very much intentionally so, is intended to encompass what this looks like in a variety of different ways for a variety of different children. 

So, coming back to checklists. In my view at its core, and it's very much different to some of the views I have expressed particularly as a teacher in my early stages and throughout my career, I believe there is a great place for checklists in our profession. Well-researched, well-evidenced and accurately described checklists provide important guidance on what learning might look like at different stages of children's development that our great profession can draw from. What I would add is that they are just one of many tools we should draw from along with our knowledge of the current research, our professional experience and all of the conversations with our professional peers about children's learning pathways. They can be a really useful tool I think to have in your kit to think about where a child is at with their learning. And most importantly, for thinking through that really important plan for learning growth for them, which is why we all do what we do in Early Childhood. 

We're all here because we want to support and see that growth in children and for their outcomes to be maximised. And this really can't be achieved, and I think this is where the key point comes in, unless we have a view on where children's learning can move to. In a way, I think we all rely on a form of checklists to do this. So whilst I do argue that checklists in and of themselves are not problematic and that they do have a great place in Early Childhood, what I will say is it's important to consider the way that they are used. So when they are seen as a box that must be ticked for children or applied at an age rather than a stage of learning, this really can limit our view of children's learning and our assessment of where children are at. We all know children demonstrate things in different ways and their learning pathways are not linear, which I've already mentioned, they very much move around. 

You may see learning in one child at one point that you will see in a different point for another. There are also limitations I think, when checklists can be used as a hard barrier to assess children's learning from which they can move forward from. So when you might use them to design a learning program around getting the boxes ticked rather than considering the individualism in the way children may get to these behaviours and skills. That said, I would reiterate that I think checklists do play an important role in broadening our understanding as professionals of what we look for in children's learning, and most meaningfully, how they can help us plan for their learning growth. Back to you Tor. 

- Thanks Pippa, controversial indeed, although it does resonate with me this idea of many tools. Sue, would you like to add your thoughts in relation to checklists and whether you agree that it's one tool of many? 

- Thank you, thank you Pippa. I think there's a couple of points here we need to be clear on. First of all, it's the word checklist, and we're not seeing a test. And so, if we say the word 'checklist', I, like Pippa, do feel there is a place for evidence-based really strong checklists that can be part of your teaching toolbox and that they can be used to support children's progress. But for me it's about how they're used, and why they're being used, and it's the right checklist for what you want for your child. And like everything in life it's a balance, isn't it? It's not one thing or another thing, it's not A, B or C, but great professionals use that balance. 

So our educators and teachers should, I believe, have access to a variety of different checklists in their toolbox to support children's learning and that they are used appropriately, and do not be used to test children to support progress. 

- Thanks Sue, and I'd like to pick up on the word balance there, because I'm very conscious that our audience today are teachers and educators listening to recommendations and ideas around using checklists, using a variety of tools, working with families, that there's a lot in this space to unpack as a practitioner and to try and prioritise so that you're really enacting quality assessment and planning, as we've also discussed. 

So I think it's important that we we bring it back to the people watching this presentation today about, if we're asking them to meaningfully assess children so that each child can reach their full potential as has been mentioned in the discussion today, what does that look like? How do we support teachers and educators, people like Annette in their day-to-day practice to really do this well? And Jane, based on your years of experience working with teachers on their practice, I wonder if we could start with you please. 

- Thank you Tor, yes, I've had the absolute privilege of working with teachers, educators, Early Years professionals and colleagues in the Department and VCAA for many years on assessment projects. And from our collective work in Victoria, professional learning has proven to be an effective and meaningful support for teachers and educators' assessment practices. 

Feedback that we've received from teachers and educators engaged in year-long professional learning programs focusing on assessment for learning, has highlighted that professional learning has many benefits and has supported them to broaden their perspectives on young children's learning and assessment for learning, observe young children more purposefully, build a deeper and holistic view of individual children's learning and development, focus on young children's strengths and capabilities, track and monitor young children's learning progressions over time, and plan more intentionally for individual children and to use observational data more effectively and productively. 

Teachers and educators have also reported that this type of professional learning has supported them to initiate learning conversations with parents and to support collaborative practices for children both in early learning services and the home learning environment. They've also reported that engaging in professional learning has supported them to share knowledge and expertise with early years professionals, and to build a community of practice through professional discussions on assessment for learning within their services but also between services. 

When I reflect on the key components of our professional learning that we've offered in Victoria that has supported these outcomes, I think it comes down to really three key factors: training that provides new knowledge and contemporary understandings of assessment for learning, and the opportunity to explore the Early Years Planning Cycle, and training that introduces tools that support teachers and educators assessment for learning practices. 

Another key component is, I think, having projects that supports the translation of the professional learning in services with the support of a colleague or a facilitator. And then a third component that supports professional learning to be effective, is having meetings with Early Years professionals in their local community to share their experiences of assessment for learning using tools embedding that information into the Early Years Planning Cycle. So, from my experience, it's really that year-long professional learning that offers training, mentoring, projects to support the translation of professional learning, and the opportunity to build and engage in professional learning communities that's been effective and meaningful for all involved.

 - Thanks Jane, and I might end with you Annette. In listening to Jane's comments, and as someone who's trying to find that balance every day with the children that you teach, what do you think it is that really supports you in your assessment for learning practice? Is it training, mentoring, is it something else? What's your sort of experience and advice to your colleagues listening today? 

- Thanks Tor, yeah, I'd agree with Jane, particularly on the training. And just picking up on a few other thoughts, I've got some points that I believe are really important for assessment. The first one being, knowledge of the individual child and his or her family background, and knowledge of early childhood development across the developmental domains. 

We need to have knowledge of the current Learning and Development Frameworks that we're using and how these can be used to support and guide planning to meet the children's needs, and common language between all early childhood staff. So teachers, educators, and Foundation to grade two primary school teachers. I guess at my point of view as a teacher, one of the most important things is a common understanding of observations and how to use these as part of the planning cycle. 

So for example, if a co-educator is taking observations to support a child's learning and development to share with the team, which includes the teacher or educational leader to use in planning, then it's important that the observations are meaningful, that they describe what's happening, what learning is taking place, and then what we can do to extend and expand on this learning. These observations can be brief, they can be used as a trigger for later discussion, or they can be more detailed. And there are so many different ways of actually recording observations now. 

So we have traditional written observations, anecdotal observations, and now we also have the use of digital technology to help us with those observations, which is a great tool to use particularly when you need to share those observations. 

- Thanks Annette, and I think we could probably keep going for many minutes, but conscious of time in the presentation today. And really love where you've brought us at the end of this discussion to that word 'observation', because it really resonates with me in the work that we're doing here in Victoria that we're aware that teachers and educators are making observations on a day-to-day basis and part of what we're talking about in assessment. 

A key part of it is those assessments being meaningful. And part of what we're working on here with the University of Melbourne in Victoria is about making a tool available that's observation-based, that's digital as you've just mentioned as well, and that supports them in that ability to gather information with their colleagues about individual children. And then if I can bring it back to Sue's comment at the beginning of discussion about planning, that the two go hand in hand and that what the tool aims to do is support that assessment part and provide teaching and learning strategies that can then support that planning phase, which in turn supports each individual child's learning. 

So I'd love to talk more about the project, I'd love to talk more with our panel of experts today. But if you would like some more information about the project that we are doing at the moment here in Victoria, I do encourage you to visit the Department of Education and Training's website. And there is a video available on that website to showcase the work of one of the services involved in the pilot this year. So there are about 50 services involved in the pilot of the tool this year. So there's a video that you're welcome to view. And if you have any questions, please email the team at the email address available there on the screen. Sincere thanks to the panel, and look forward to discussing this really important topic with you all in the future. And thank you to everyone again for joining us.   

   

A video showcasing the pilot of the Tool will be available later in 2022.

More information

For more information email early.years.assessment@education.vic.gov.au