Bombarded by Tests: How Young Is Too Young to Start Testing Kids?


Remember when the biggest test in kindergarten was not crying on the first day? Remember when kindergarten teachers had time to let kids play; to observe them and get to know their little quirks and personalities? Remember Robert Fulgham’s words on that once omnipresent poster claiming Everything You Need to Know You Learned in Kindergarten?

In case you’ve forgotten, here are few of the things kids used to learn:

  • Share everything.
  • Play fair.
  • Don't hit people.
  • Put things back where you found them.
  • Clean up your own mess.
  • Don't take things that aren't yours.
  • Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody.
  • Wash your hands before you eat.
  • Live a balanced life.
  • Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
  • Take a nap every afternoon.
  • When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
  • Be aware of wonder.

That kindergarten is no more. We now have standards to meet. We now expect kids to become readers and complete worksheets and sit and listen to direct teacher instruction rather than learn through play. The joy of discovery and the gift of time for children to develop at their own unique pace have been replaced by lock-step expectations. And to ensure teachers are teaching and kids are learning what is required, we now have, in some places, formal testing of kindergarteners.

In my community, kids take the Illinois Snapshot of Early Learning (ISEL) as soon as they begin school to establish a “baseline score” that supposedly reflects what the child knows at the start of his formal education. That score is deemed accurate regardless of whether these little guys understand what is being asked of them or are just too shy to give a complete answer.

What do these tests look like? Here’s an example: the teacher will read the story The Carrot Seed (published, by the way, in 1945) to the child and then ask, “What is a weed?” Here’s the text of the book:

A little boy planted a carrot seed.
His mother said, "I'm afraid it won't come up."
His father said, "I'm afraid it won't come up."
His brother said, "It won't come up."
Every day the little boy pulled up the weeds around the seed and sprinkled the ground with water.
But nothing came up.
And nothing came up.
Everyone kept saying it wouldn't come up.
But he still pulled up the weeds around it every day and sprinkled the ground with water.
And then
One day
A carrot came up
Just as the little boy had known it would.

So: what is a weed? Of course, the book doesn’t really say what a weed is, so the ability to answer correctly in this case hinges on the life experiences of the child outside the classroom. An urban kid who has never heard of weeds will most likely not pass that question.

The Teacher’s Guide to the ISEL that is administered before or at the start of school raves about how the test saves so much time. Without it, the guide notes, the teacher would have to spend three weeks observing a child to figure out her skill level. I wonder what else the teacher would learn if she had the luxury of observing her students for three weeks before launching into direct instruction?

Kindergarteners take the ISEL again before report cards are issued in early December. Data from the ISEL are supposed to guide the teacher’s decisions about instruction for the child. The result of this, by my guess, is that some kids end up pegged as behind before they even have time to adjust to school.

Then, when a kindergarten class seems ready to decipher the reading process (how does the teacher determine this for the entire class, I wonder), the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) is given. This assessment is also administered individually, usually mid-year, for a baseline, and at the end of the year as an indicator for reading group placement in first grade.

As a result of the DRA score, various levels of reading texts are provided in a graduated way. At the end-of-the-year DRA assessment, a kindergartener reads a benchmark book to the teacher and then retells the story. The teacher then scores the child on a range of skills, such as accuracy of reading, comprehension and fluency (ease of reading and use of expression). The same process is repeated every year and determines the level of reader the child gets the next year.

A child’s reading level as determined by the DRA is based on the average for a given grade ; thus, a younger kindergarten child could be at a disadvantage for purely developmental reasons. Additionally, this test looks at reading progress based on the progress an “average” child makes. For most individual learners, progress occurs in surges, not in a steady upward curve. My 8-year-old granddaughter, who was reading Harry Potter at home, was bringing home really simple books for her ability, based on how her teacher scored her in the beginning of first grade. They did catch their error in second grade, but the point is that assessing kids at such a young age is necessarily flawed, and potentially limiting.

My community is not alone in testing its kindergarteners early and often. As Valerie Strauss noted in her August 25 Washington Post blog, Miami-Dade County Public School wins the dubious distinction of most mercilessly testing its kindergarteners. In her August 22 blog post, Strauss writes,

In 2011 the Florida Legislature approved a statute that is to go into effect during the new 2014-15 school year requiring that school districts develop and/or administer seven or more end-of-course assessments to all students — and did not exclude kindergarten. As a result, school districts have been developing final assessments in subjects including math, language arts, music, science and social studies to give to students, including kindergartners. In Florida, the results of end-of-course exams affect the evaluation and pay of teachers.

Here’s what kindergarteners in Florida are going to be subjected to this year, according to Strauss:

  • From August 10-September 30 they will take the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener (Work Sampling System andFlorida Assessments for Instruction in Reading)
  • From March 2-April 3, they’ll take the Comprehensive English Language Learning Assessment
  • From April 13-17, they’ll take the Stanford Achievement Test, Tenth Edition for Reading and Mathematics
  • From April 13-May 29 they’ll take the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading Assessment Period 3 (AP3)
  • From May 11-June 5, they will take the District-Designated End-of-Course Assessment

And, just in case they haven’t had enough by that point, Florida kindergarteners also have the option of taking these two tests:

  • To see if they are “gifted:” ”The Iowa Tests (Iowa Tests of Basic Skills and Iowa Tests of Educational Development), either the English or English Language Learners (ELL) version
  • To decide about placement for English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL): Miami-Dade County Oral Language Proficiency Scale Revised

Get the idea? There are lots of tests -- lots of them. Not much time in these kindergarten classes for developmentally appropriate approaches to learning. Not much time for kids to adjust to school. Not much of the original “children’s garden” designed by Freidrich Froebel, where kids could play to learn and learn to play.

Fewer tests would give kindergarten teachers time to teach what really matters. We could certainly use more sharing, fairness, kindness, cooperation, respect for others, honesty, joy, friendship, and wonder in the world. These are the lessons that will enable kindergarteners to benefit from formal instruction down the road. More importantly, these values, that can’t be measured on a test, are the ones that ensure success in life.

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