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Answer Sheet
Posted at 03:00 AM ET, 07/21/2011

Advice to Education Dept. on newest Race to the Top

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This was written by Monty Neill, executive director of The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, known as FairTest, a non-profit organization that works to end the misuses of standardized testing and to ensure that evaluation of students, teachers and schools is fair and valid.

By Monty Neill

Will a torrent of tests now rain down on little kids?

Under the latest Race to the Top program – the Early Childhood Challenge (ELC) – that scenario has become much more likely. This could mean pre-school children losing play time and experiential learning in order to start practicing for standardized tests. That is already happening in kindergarten as testing pressure flows down from grade 3. Young children do not need a developmentally inappropriate focus on narrowly conceived “academic” skills. Drilling little ones with phonics cards won’t make them better readers when they are 10 or 20 years old.

But now RTTT proposes that winning states commit to testing all pre-schoolers to see if they are “ready” for kindergarten, as part of a “Comprehensive Assessment System.”

States are to compete for ELC funding for pre-school programs that serve children from low-income families (meaning, as usual, most states will lose and their children see no benefit). The Education Department solicited comments on its proposed “requirements, priorities, selection criteria and definitions” for ELC. (Mine are about half-way down page 2 of 349 comments.)

The proposed requirements seem often reasonable, but the results will likely do more harm than good. Consider “Priority 1: Using Early Learning and Development Standards and Kindergarten Entry Assessments to Promote School Readiness.” In theory, standards induce program improvements, while assessments identify how to better help children learn and develop.

State standards must be “developmentally, linguistically, and culturally appropriate.” They are to cover the “Essential Domains of School Readiness” – which, unfortunately, leave out some essentials. The “Domains” do include “physical well-being and motor development, and social and emotional development.”

However, the early childhood standards must align with the state K-12 academic standards in reading and math, and efforts to ensure programs have lasting effects must focus on reading and math results under No Child Left Behind.

The danger is that states will emphasize the academic components to “prepare” students for the high-stakes standardized tests in grade 3 (or earlier in some states). Pushing down inappropriate instructional practices even to kindergarten is already rampant. Meanwhile, other subject areas get short shrift: while science is mentioned in the “Essential Domains,” social studies and the arts are not. Thus, the Education Department needs to expand the required domains so they are more appropriate for young children’s all-around growth.

A winning state also must construct a “Comprehensive Assessment System,” to include a “common, statewide kindergarten entry assessment.” Most current “readiness” tests are notoriously narrow, often based on IQ tests.

Using standardized tests on young children can hurt them in many ways. Test results frequently convince children they are failures at a young age. Having been emotionally and socially hurt, they are less likely to engage in school or believe they can succeed. And educators may believe the tests and conclude children are less able to learn than they really are.

On a positive note, however, states could use assessments such as the Work Sampling System. The WSS is a means of organizing a wide range of evidence of student learning and development. It is not a one-shot test or “assessment.” If children are in a program that gathers and organizes evidence, using WSS or something comparable, there is no need for a one-shot readiness test.

Despite this possibility, the Department has, again, opened the door to a test-driven approach. States could administer an array of isolated, disconnected tests purporting to “measure” the various domains. That might be cheaper, at least at the start, even if inappropriate and dangerous to the children.

The federal government should ensure assessment quality and appropriateness, requiring changes if the state fails to implement comprehensive, developmentally appropriate assessments based on classroom-based evidence gathered over time. Further, as there is no good reason to have one state-wide “readiness” test if the assessments are all based on the state’s standards, the department should drop this requirement.

While the department says the assessments are not high stakes, some states could use the results, even if based on weak tests, to coerce changes or close programs. Or they could start the downward spiral of “interim” and “formative” tests aimed at increasing scores on the test that counts, which will really turn pre-school into test prep. The Department should bar states from using RTTT-funded child assessment information for high-stakes accountability purposes for children, program staff, or programs.

If past experience is a guide, the department will at most make minor changes to its regulations. Advocates for quality early childhood education must pressure their states to make this program help children instead of deform early childhood programs as testing has deformed elementary and secondary schools.

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By  |  03:00 AM ET, 07/21/2011

 
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