Data In, Data Out

What is High-Quality Documentation and Why Does it Matter?

· Assessment

Observation-based assessment is the most authentic and accurate way to understand young children's development. But in order for these assessments to provide reliable and actionable data for teachers and administrators, observation-based assessments depend on teachers capturing high-quality observations.

What is High-Quality Documentation?

Consider these two anecdotes:

  1. Raymond and Stacy put together a puzzle that showed the life cycle of butterflies.
  2. Raymond and Stacy made different shapes out of play-dough. Stacy used the circle cookie cutter. She said, "Look, a circle. It's the moon". Raymond used the square and triangle cooke cutters. He said, "Mine is a house. It has a square and a triangle for the roof."

Clearly, the second anecdote provides a richer, fuller picture of learning, but not just because it is longer. The first anecdote tells us the activity the children were engaged in. The second anecdote provides detailed information about each child’s learning and development, which a teacher can use to inform future instructional planning. Specifically, the second anecdote includes:

  1. Specific details of what each child said
  2. A connection to learning standards
  3. Indication of a child’s developmental level
  4. Information that can guide a teacher in planning an appropriate follow-up activity

In the second anecdote, we know that Stacy and Raymond demonstrated different levels of development while completing the same activity. Stacy was able to recognize and name basic shapes. Raymond was also able to compose and name a new shape from shapes he already knew. These differences help guide the teacher with how to differentiate and scaffold instruction for what skills each child needs to develop next.

High-quality documentation should:

  1. Be specific and detailed
  2. Focus on learning, not just something a child did
  3. Be connected to specific developmental goals
  4. Promote conversation when shared with families
  5. Suggest next steps for learning

Why Does High-Quality Documentation Matter?

Reports to measure learning or guide instructional planning are only as good as the data collected and powering those reports. Administrators and teachers depend on authentic, high-quality observations to understand the learning happening in the classroom.

Capturing high-quality data is the crucial first step in using data to guide instruction. High-quality documentation allows teachers to plan instruction and activities to meet each child’s specific needs. And while administrators look at aggregate data across classrooms, they rely on teachers capturing high-quality data to provide them with an accurate and complete view of the learning and development happening in the classroom.

How to Capture High-Quality Documentation?

1. Plan Purposefully

When planning activities, teachers can anticipate the developmental skills required to complete the activity. And while a teacher may intend to target a few specific skills through an activity, children often demonstrate connected skills.

For example, a teacher may plan a science activity in which children draw the life cycle of apple trees to develop children’s understanding of nature and life cycles. But, this activity will also provide children the opportunity to demonstrate fine motor skills or art skills when drawing with markers. By thinking of all connected skills prior to an activity, teachers know specifically what to look for and can be prepared to add all the necessary details to an observation.

2. Record Exactly What You See and Hear

Noting exactly what a child says or does adds specificity to an observation. It also helps teachers remain neutral observers and not include subjective judgements about what a child is thinking or feeling.

3. Include Learning Standards and Assessment Items

Including specific curricular goals and assessment items helps focus an observation. When shared with families, it provides valuable information so that families understand how the activity in which a child is engaged is concretely linked to the child’s learning goals. Including this type of information also helps organize documentation into portfolios for each child so that teachers and administrators can reflect on a child’s developmental progression and plan for what skills a child needs to develop next.

About the Author

Anna Marrs is a former early literacy curriculum developer and a former certified 1st grade teacher in North Carolina. She holds a Master's in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and now works on the School Partnerships team at Kaymbu.

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