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Posted at 10:54 PM ET, 10/26/2011

Why standardized tests for 2nd graders are nonsensical

There is a wacky integrity to a move by D.C. public schools officials to keep their promise to expand standardized testing, now down to second grade. The problem is that the promise didn’t make sense to begin with, education-wise or child development-wise, and still doesn’t.

My colleague Bill Turque reported that D.C. public school second-graders will start taking the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System this spring. Here’s why: The D.C. school system is committed to evaluating teachers in large part on the standardized test scores of its students, so therefore, students have to take standardized tests, joining their compatriots in grades 3 through 8.

The fact that young children are known to be unreliable test takers doesn’t seem to matter.

Under the D.C. system’s IMPACT teacher evaluation system, the scores are injected into a “value added” formula that purports to tell how much “value” a teacher added to a student’s learning. There are different formulas and all kinds of problems with the formulas, researchers have shown, rendering these “value added” scores not valid.

Still Jason Kamras, the man in charge of the system’s IMPACT teacher evaluation system, told Turque in an interview earlier this year that the system plans to have 75 percent of classroom teachers evaluated by this system within five years.

That means more standardized tests for kids.

The District follows other systems that have been giving standardized tests to second graders for years, including in the state of California, where students from grades 2 to 11 are tested annually in a range of subjects. The California Teachers Associations has long complained that the second grade tests are a waste of money, but that hasn’t changed anything.

According to a paper on second-grade testing from the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, an organization that aims to end the misuse of tests:

1. Tests of children in grade two are likely to be unreliable. Walt Haney of Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, for instance, says, Test results for young children are much less reliable than for older children. Research clearly shows that for children below fourth grade, the mechanics of taking tests and answering on specialized answer sheets can prove more difficult than the cognitive tasks the tests are asking them to address. Thus the test results are too much influenced by children’s ability to fill in bubbles and handle pieces of paper; too little determined by their ability to read.

2. Related to the above point is the evident fact that standardized tests are scary for primary school children, bad for their morale and confidence. Overwhelmed by the test situation, they often don t show what they do know and can do. Instances of children breaking down, crying, unable to face school, becoming literally sick with anxiety in the face of standardized tests, are common. Most teachers in the early grades understand the importance of maintaining their students level of interest and high morale, both of which tend to be undone by tests. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has, for a number of years, come out against standardized testing of young children for some of these same reasons.

3. Most seven-year-olds are still in the process of acquiring the complex skills involved in learning to read and write. They need a chance to consolidate these skills which, at first, are fragile and inconsistent. Premature testing, no matter how well intentioned, is discouraging to the learner like having a work-in-progress exposed to summary judgment. And no matter how well intentioned the tests, no matter what the disclaimers or reassurances, the results will be understood by the children as judgment.

4. Differences in background show up vividly in the early years of schooling: some children arrive in school never having actually handled a book or in some cases seen one close up; others have had books read to them since infancy. These differences tend to diminish in the face of their common school experience. Narrowing the gap between the more and less advantaged students is one of the great potentials of the public school system. Premature testing, however, by highlighting differences, will reinforce them in the minds of children. Young children are not likely to have the kind of perspective that allows them to see the possibility of catching up . Since they always know who did well and who did badly children will sort themselves out accordingly. They will be likely to characterize themselves relative to their classmates as good readers (like fast runners ) or bad readers (like slow runners ). The early identification some poor testers will make of themselves as academic losers will be difficult at the very least to undo later.

There are additional problems connected with this, including the amount of test preparation that teachers of young children feel compelled to give their students to try to make sure their scores are high enough, too often perverting the educational program.

There’s plenty of test prep material for teachers of second graders, including a book called — can you guess? — Standardized Test Practice for 2nd graders.

Many millions of dollars are spent giving young kids tests that have no educational meaning. Budget officials looking for cuts in education can start right here.

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By  |  10:54 PM ET, 10/26/2011

 
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