Should Kindergartners Really Be Taking Standardized Tests?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Nov. 4 2011 1:11 PM

Kindergartners, Put Down Your Pencils 

Standardized testing for 5-year-olds sounds crazy. But it just might lead to a better way of assessing all kids.

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The goal of a kindergarten assessment like Maryland’s is to help a child’s current and future teachers tailor instruction to her strengths and weaknesses. Because the assessment is holistic and the ratings broad, however, it is difficult to build a school rating system—something that Race to the Top requires of states—around Work Sampling. That’s why some states may instead choose to follow the example of Ohio, which has adopted Meisels’ core principles, but attached them—controversially—to something that looks much more like a traditional test. 

Within the first few weeks of school, every Ohio kindergartener sits down with his teacher for a 10- to 15-minute scored literacy assessment. The child is asked to perform six tasks: answer a question about chronology (What did Sam do first, wake up or eat breakfast?); repeat a sentence spoken by the teacher; recognize two words that rhyme (Which pair rhymes: cat and hat, or door and sky?); choose a word that rhymes with another (Can you tell me a word that rhymes with cat?); recognize and name a printed letter; and sound out the beginning of a printed word.

New York has already announced that, like Ohio, it will assess kindergartners on a specific date and at a specific time. But there are some difficulties in testing easily distracted 5-year-olds in this manner, as Ohio’s guide for teachers performing the assessment hints. “Having to locate materials during the course of the assessment will create moments of downtime, during which children could lose focus,” it warns. “A child who may be hesitant to participate may become even more reserved if encountering long delays, and a child who appears restless may become more so as a result of delays.”

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Of course, anyone who has cared for a kindergartner knows that immediate physical and emotional needs, such as having to use the bathroom, needing a nap, or being hungry or thirsty take precedence over more cerebral concerns such as learning to read and write. Some children will undoubtedly get up and walk away from an assessment setup. And as educational psychologist David Berliner wrote for the Washington Post over the summer, many a 5-year-old is unable to follow multistep directions, let alone weigh two options in the sophisticated manner that would lead to a “correct” answer on Ohio’s literacy test—even when that child actually has acquired the skills the assessment calls for, such as the ability to rhyme.

The risk here is that many states will adopt assessments like Ohio’s, which may not be based on the best developmental science, but which have the benefit of providing each child with a single “score” that can easily be fed into a computer database to create the school “quality rating and improvement systems” the Obama administration supports. So here’s hoping that the Race to the Top judges favor states that plan to assess the “whole child” over many weeks and months, as Maryland does, not in one stressful 15-minute period, as Ohio does.

Just by promoting the idea of “assessing” 5-year-olds, the Obama administration has picked sides in one of the nastiest battles of the education reform war: the perennial debate over whether it’s fair to create school accountability systems based on student test scores, or whether reliance on testing distorts teaching and learning, processes that critics maintain are not so easily measured. There is some irony here, though. If we get these new early childhood assessments right, they could provide an important model for the rest of the education system. Meisels’ idea of seven distinct “domains of learning” is a powerful one. Of course, schools must teach children to read, write, and measure, but we also want to develop kind, empathetic, responsible young adults, people who get along with their peers, serve their communities, and ultimately become good citizens, not just effective students or workers. In other words, it is a vision that many testing critics could not just tolerate, but embrace.

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