Obama’s Race to the Top Goes to Kindergarten: Is standardized testing for 5-year-olds a good idea?

Should Kindergartners Really Be Taking Standardized Tests?

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.

Can't Do It
Most 5-year-olds are just learning to write their names, so why does the government want us testing kindergartners?

Photograph by Leah-Anne Thompson.

Last month, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed that all public school kindergartners sit for "entry assessments” starting in the 2014-15 school year, the education blogosphere erupted. Historian-turned-testing-apostate Diane Ravitch took to Twitter to decry the move, while the blogger Teacher Tom accused Cuomo of jumping on a "crazy train bandwagon" in which "even our three and four-year olds will be subjected to the dull tedium of a test-prep curriculum." What could be crazier, after all, than the prospect of a kindergartner gripping a No. 2 pencil in his tiny fist, looking down in confusion at a Scantron sheet he couldn't hope to decode, and bursting into tears?

Cuomo’s proposal comes in response to the Early Learning Challenge, the latest iteration of Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s 2-year-old school-reform grant competition. Critics of Race to the Top were complaining about its emphasis on standardized testing even before this latest program was announced back in May, but it seems poised to feed their fears: Starting next month, $500 million will be awarded to states that agree to rate preschools and day-care centers according to how well their “graduates” perform on “kindergarten entry assessments.” A few states have already developed and deployed such assessments in classrooms, and last month, 35 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico turned in applications to vie for the funding.

Most 5-year-olds can’t read, are just learning to write their names, and have trouble sitting still. Which raises some questions: Can kindergarteners even take tests? Where is all this going?


Race to the Top leaves it up to individual states to decide exactly what their kindergarten assessments will look like, and chances are, most will ape those states, like Maryland and Ohio, that are already assessing kindergarteners—albeit in very different ways. So what does kindergarten assessment actually look like in these states, and how reliable is it? First off, the nightmare scenario—the chubby fingers grasping a No. 2 pencil—bears little resemblance to what are currently considered the best practices in early-childhood assessment.

Maryland, Georgia, and Arkansas already require schools to use a highly-regarded kindergarten assessment called the Work Sampling System, which has almost nothing in common with a test as the term is popularly understood. Work Sampling was developed by Samuel Meisels, a leading researcher on early childhood development and the president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school that trains educators to work with young children. The system simply formalizes what a good kindergarten teacher should already be doing: observing each child’s behavior and skills over time, not on any specific test day.

While standardized tests of older children tend to focus exclusively on their academic knowledge and skills, the Work Sampling System looks at the whole child across seven “domains of learning”: her social development, language and literacy skills, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies awareness, interest in the arts, and physical/motor skills. To perform the assessment, teachers in Maryland take notes on whether their students display key skills such as playing cooperatively with other children; drawing; singing; recognizing letters and numbers; writing their names; describing the properties of a physical object; showing awareness of basic geography, such as the name of their town, state, and country; and performing basic “self-care” tasks, such as putting on a coat, fastening Velcro shoes, and using a toilet. The teacher then gives each student a rating in each of the seven categories.