Consider this passage from a September 25 Reuters article by Stephanie Simon:
Dao Tran, a mother in New York City, said her heart sank when she learned that her neighborhood school emphasized standardized testing even in kindergarten. She scoured the city to find an alternative for her daughter. The public school she chose requires a 45-minute commute each way, but Tran says it’s worth it.
The kids there, she said, ‘seemed happy, and that seemed like the most important thing.’
I suspect readers are nodding their heads in agreement with Dao Tran. I hope—nay, pray—readers are likewise asking in amazement: “standardized testing—in kindergarten?!” God help us; in kindergarten. Simon wrote:
With school in full swing across the United States, the littlest students are getting used to the blocks table and the dress-up corner – and that staple of American public education, the standardized test.
A national push to make public schools more rigorous and hold teachers more accountable has led to a vast expansion of testing in kindergarten. And more exams are on the way, including a test meant to determine whether 5-year-olds are on track to succeed in college and career.
Paul Weeks, a vice president at test developer ACT Inc., says he knows that particular assessment sounds a bit nutty, especially since many kindergarteners aspire to careers as superheroes. ‘What skills do you need for that, right? Flying is good. X-ray vision?’ he said, laughing.
Ah! A testing marketer with an actual sense of proportion and humor? Not so much.
But ACT will soon roll out college- and career-readiness exams for kids age 8 through 18 and Weeks said developing similar tests for younger ages is ‘high on our agenda.’ Asking kids to predict the ending of a story or to suggest a different ending, for instance, can identify the critical thinking skills that employers prize, he said.
Right. You just can’t get those second and third graders on the path to college and careers too soon.
There are skills that we’ve identified as essential for college and career success, and you can back them down in a grade-appropriate manner,’ Weeks said. ‘Even in the early grades, you can find students who may be at risk.’
At least 25 states now mandate at least one formal assessment during kindergarten. Many local school districts require their own tests as well, starting just a few weeks into the academic year.
There are skills I’ve identified as essential for 8-year olds too, skills like actually being allowed to be children. Children? Childhood? Remember what those are?
Regular readers know I am less than thrilled with the current tilt of the pendulum toward ever more intrusive and expensive mandatory standardized testing. Texas recently spent just under a half billion dollars—that’s real money even in Texas—just to purchase its new STAAR tests for the next five years. That’s far from the total cost of the testing. Instead of four tests that must be passed in three years of high school, the new Texas testing regime requires passing 15 tests in three years, and there is indeed enhanced testing in the lower grades.
Simon does, however, provide some necessary perspective—and some common sense:
Formal tests give a narrow picture of a child’s ability, said Samuel Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in Chicago focused on child development. He urges teachers instead to assess young children by observing them over time, recording skills and deficits and comparing those to benchmarks.
But Meisels fears such observational tests won’t seem objective or precise enough in today’s data-driven world; he says he too often sees them pushed aside in favor of more formal assessments.
‘I am worried, yes,’ he said. ‘We should know better.’
Kari Knutson, a veteran kindergarten teacher in Minnesota, has seen the shifting attitude toward testing play out in her classroom.
During her first two decades of teaching, Knutson rarely, if ever, gave formal tests; kindergarten was about learning through play, music, art and physical activity.
These days, though, her district mandates a long list of assessments.
Knutson started the year by quizzing each of her 23 students on the alphabet and phonics, through a 111-question oral exam. Last week, she brought the kids to the computer lab for another literacy test. Each kindergartener wore headphones and listened to questions while a menu of possible answers flashed on the screen. They were supposed to respond by clicking on the correct answer, though not all could maneuver the mouse and some gave up in frustration, Knutson said.
This week, it’s on to math – and a seven-page, pencil-and-paper test. ‘It’s supposed to show them what they’ll be learning in first grade,’ Knutson said. ‘Like they really care.’
In her view, the kids are far too young to tackle formal exams, especially in their first weeks of what is for many their first school experience. ‘Half of them are crying because they miss mom and dad. When you tell them to line up, they don’t even know what a line is,’ Knutson said.
What’s going on here? It’s actually quite simple:
(1) The “Accountability” Movement: Underlying this impulse is the assumption that teachers are untrustworthy and/or incapable of knowing the abilities of their students. Furthermore, they must be unwilling to teach their students and/or incapable of doing it. In addition, local citizens and school boards are likewise incompetent or evil. Only testing and supervision imposed from without can do the job—with the application of truly horrifying amounts of bureaucracy and public money. Whether one is willing to accord those pushing this movement credit for having at least partial good intentions—and I generally am—much of this consists of spending huge amounts of money to provide a few bits of data far inferior to the knowledge teachers already possess, and “fixing” that which is not broken.
(2) Political Power: Education is one of a few traditional talking points of politicians. Getting a hand in the education pie is very lucrative for any politician and their cronies. Dispensing favors is the lifeblood of the political process, and testing companies are generous in rewarding politicians whose legislation and support creates and maintains their business. In addition, testing—rather than actually doing the hard work of fixing truly broken schools and school districts—gives the illusion of actually doing something tangible and proactive about education. Data thumping and demagoguery is also a traditional pastime of politicians.
(3) Money: There is an enormous and never-ending supply of public money to be made in the testing industry. Companies like Pearson not only make money on selling actual tests, but in test preparation services and materials, and on all manner of related services. In truth, success on standardized tests is only partially a reflection of a student’s IQ and academic abilities. It is also a reflection of their preparation for and knowledge about how to take those specific tests. Testing companies know this well and exploit it mercilessly.
Mandatory Disclaimer: I am very much for free market capitalism. If companies can create and market their testing wares and make profits, good for them. That’s our system, and I fully support it. Likewise, I have no trouble with testing, and test my students every week in a wide and highly effective number of ways. I know far more about my students by the third week of school than the scores on a standardized test can possibly suggest to an educrat data sifting in a state capital. The issue is doing what is truly effective, not only financially, but in terms of helping students actually learn rather than spending substantial portions of each school year drilling for expensive, highly limited and often flawed tests.
As one might imagine, the Feds have their finger in the pie as well. Simon continues:
The Obama administration accelerated the trend in 2011 with a $500 million competitive grant to bolster early childhood education. States that pledged to assess all kindergarteners earned extra points on their applications.
After all, taxpayers are investing more than $500 billion a year in public education and ‘we need to know how children are progressing,’ said Jacqueline Jones, a deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. ‘There has to be some accountability,’ she said.
The administration’s grant guidelines encouraged states to develop holistic assessments that measure the 5-year-olds’ social, emotional and physical development as well as their cognitive skills. About a dozen states, including Georgia and Maryland, have developed such broad assessments, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Others states, though, focus more narrowly on reading and math skills; some are even beginning to evaluate kindergarten teachers in part on how well their students do on those exams.
Notice the “accountability” involved in evaluating kindergarten teachers on their student’s exam scores. Please keep in mind, gentle readers, we’re talking about children, some of whom are not yet completely potty trained. Surely such assessments would be grade appropriate, wouldn’t they? Surely well intentioned and utterly professional testing advocates wouldn’t go overboard with kindergarteners?
Consider the 68-page manual recently published by New York City education officials to guide kindergarten teachers through a math unit aligned to the new Common Core academic standards rolling out nationally. The unit, meant to introduce 5-year-olds to algebraic thinking, includes three short pencil-and-paper exams, culminating with a test that asks students to calculate all the ways they could divide six books between two shelves.
“Algebraic thinking?!” Education theory—and my many years of practical experience—suggest inescapably that the overwhelming majority of kids are simply not capable of abstract thinking until the age of 16 or 17. Doesn’t algebra—or “algebraic thinking, if you will—require the ability to apprehend and deal with abstractions? My sophomores—at 15/16 years of age—certainly have their difficulties, and I spend a good portion of the year building in them the ability to employ abstract reasoning, and a good number simply never quite accomplish it. For them, learning the tricks necessary to pass standardized tests, which give the appearance of that ability to those who have the responsibility for and care only about data rather than individual kids, suffices.
I suspect kids will be able to work their way through kindergarten and grow acceptably without the imposition of multiple standardized tests meant to assess their career and college readiness, matters about which most will have little clue 13 years into the future as they graduate from high school.
And so I, and countless other teachers, continue to see their daily class periods diminishing, exacerbated by months of mindless drilling for ever more and more expensive standardized tests. We’re very accountable, you see, and we have more and more data to prove it because we are quite adept at teaching kids how to take very specific tests. Oh yes, and we’re going to have to be capable of producing the illusion that five-year olds are capable of abstract reasoning. I guess that’s what “accountability” really means these days: lying to the public while simultaneously picking their pockets.