The Washington Post

D.C. charter schools to give standardized tests to young children

Kiera Veach, 5, tells classmates to be quiet in the hallway after her kindergarten class ate lunch at Orange Hunt Elementary School in Springfield, Va. Matt McClain / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST (By Matt McClain / FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

The use of standardized tests to measure very young students  keeps expanding. Now public charter schools in Washington D.C. will soon be giving new standardized tests to very young children — aged 3, 4 and 5 — for the purposes of assessing their academic progress and ranking schools according to the results. What will be optional for each school is whether to evaluate students in social-emotional learning, which early childhood experts say should be at the center of education for the youngest students.This move in D.C. charters is part of a disturbing shift in early childhood classrooms around the country, as they increasingly mimic what older students do academically. (Here’s a post on that.)

The following post explains the D.C. charter plan. It was written by educator and author Sam Chaltain, who began his career as an English teacher in New York City and who now writes about the intersection of education and democracy at Previously, he was national director of the Forum for Education & Democracy, an education advocacy organization, and the founding director of the Five Freedoms Project, a national program that helps K-12 educators create more democratic learning communities. He also spent five years at the First Amendment Center as the co-director of the First Amendment Schools program.

By Sam Chaltain

If you’re a parent of a young charter school student in Washington D.C. — or just someone who cares about early education — you need to know what’s happening here in the nation’s capital, and fast.

In less than a week, all charter schools that serve young children will start being held accountable to their students’ test scores on reading and math. Just to clarify: we’re talking about three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Being tested. In reading and math. With high stakes attached for the schools that care for them.

First, some context: Like many other cities, Washington D.C. is a place where daycare waiting lists can last for years, and where the costs of childcare can amount to a second mortgage. Unlike other cities, however, Washington ranks first in the nation for its percentage of 3- and 4-year-old children enrolled in preschool programs – 88% in all, and at an expense of nearly $15,000 per child. That’s a huge advantage for D.C. families, and a huge influence on the overall development and growth of the city’s youngest residents.

As the District inches closer to its goal of providing universal preschool by 2014, our civic leaders are rightfully asking themselves what else they should do to ensure that our deep investments in early childhood reap deep civic returns. And in their effort to provide an answer, D.C. sole authorizing and oversight body for charter schools – the Public Charter School Board – has proposed an accountability plan for the youngest children that would in some ways mimic the format that’s already in place for the oldest.

If the plan is approved – and it will be, barring significant community objections – all of the city’s kindergarten and lower elementary charter school programs will forthwith be ranked according to a weighted formula that assigns between 60 percent and 80 percent of a school’s overall performance to student reading and math scores. (Pre-K has a lower percentage.) And although the proposal includes the possibility for schools to “opt-in” to adding an assessment that measures the social and emotional (SEL) growth of children, it would count for just 15 percent of the total for preschool and pre-K, and 10 percent for kindergarten. Attendance is another indicator, at 10 percent.

This sort of weighted formula squares neatly with the latest trends in education policy. It does not, however, align with the latest research on how to teach young children

“Everything that happens to us affects the way the brain develops,” says Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and the author of The Whole Brain Child. “The brain is a social organ, made to be in relationship. What happens between brains has a great deal to do with what happens within each individual brain . . . [And] the physical architecture of the brain changes according to where we direct our attention and what we practice doing.”

Where we direct our attention, then, matters greatly when it comes to determining what our children will practice doing, and how their brains will develop.  And what scholars like Siegel are saying is that the worst thing we can do is disproportionately weight one piece of the developmental puzzle. He explains:

“We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way. We want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of the brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival.

Siegel’s suggestions align with the recommendations of other leading researchers, all of who confirm that the foundation of learning is social, not academic. In fact, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization that works to advance the science and evidence-based practice of social and emotional learning, the best way for schools to provide the optimal foundation for learning is by helping students develop five core competencies:

*self-awareness, or the ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior;

*self-management, or the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations;

*social awareness, or the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures;

*relationship skills, or the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups; and

* responsible decision-making, or the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions. CASEL has even published a compendium of the available assessment measures when it comes to measuring these sorts of skills in children.

In other words, the research is clear, the tools are out there, and the common sense is self-evident to anyone who is a parent to young children. So I ask you: will an accountability framework that places as much as 80 percent of its weight behind reading and math scores engender a generation of children with the skills CASEL identifies as the foundation of all learning, or lead to the sort of neurobiological integration scholars like Siegel are calling for?

If you think the answer is yes, sit tight. But if you think the answer is no, I urge you to call or email the PCSB’s executive director, Scott Pearson (, 202.328.2660) and insist that any accountability system assign equal weight to the different components of a healthy, high-functioning learning environment – including, and not limited to, social and emotional growth.

The past 12 years of federal policy have taught us that when it comes to assessing the upper grades, reading and math are valuable – and overvalued. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · August 21, 2013

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