Isaac Jackson, 5, walked slowly behind Kendra Sarris, his kindergarten teacher, into the hallway outside Room 19 at Accokeek Academy. The pair then sat at two tiny desks facing a concrete wall.
It was testing time.
“You’re going to listen carefully to the directions and try your best,” Sarris told Isaac as he settled into his chair.
Then Sarris slowly began reading from the script for the new Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, a comprehensive test that has been expanded in Maryland to include one-on-one interaction and is designed to evaluate students in the areas of language, literacy, math, science, social studies and physical well-being.
Similar scenarios are playing out across the country as educators increasingly use tests to measure kindergartners’ knowledge in such area as letters, sounds, syllables and number recognition, assessing their needs as they move into the nation’s K-12 public school system. For more than a decade, Maryland has assessed student readiness for kindergarten, but the tests have been revised to align with the Common Core State Standards, a new, national set of academic guidelines.
Sarris pulled out her test kit, a booklet that Isaac would use to point to the correct answers as she posed questions. “Look at the picture,” she instructed. “What is this child doing?”
“Kicking a soccer ball,” Isaac said.
“What is this man doing?” she asked, pointing to a man pushing a stroller.
“Pushing the baby,” Isaac said.
The KRA is generally done on an iPad, computer or tablet at the majority of elementary schools in Maryland, a new element of the test. In Prince George’s County, where the WiFi connection in some schools is limited, kindergartners like Isaac are using paper tests.
For the next 40 minutes, Isaac responded to Sarris’s questions and instructions. “Touch the picture with the ball on the chair. . . . Touch the picture with the ball in front of the chair,” Sarris said. Isaac pointed to the pictures. Sarris jotted down the responses. She would later enter the results in a computer for analysis.
While Sarris gave Isaac his one-on-one test, fellow kindergarten teacher Heather Messick placed her students in small groups. She told them to draw and color pictures of things that begin with the letter P.
Messick walked around the desks, jotting down notes. She answered students’ questions and attended to some of their needs. Helping her balance it all was Virginia Pickett, a retired kindergarten teacher called in as a substitute on test days.
Messick said she looks for a variety of skills and actions, from how students hold their pencils and crayons (with their fists or between their fingers?) and how they interact (do they help others, and do they share?).
Teachers have been trained to also observe the child’s “social foundations,” which include their behavior and their ability to follow multi-step instructions, work collectively, complete tasks and relate to their peers.
State officials have fielded complaints from some of the 3,500 teachers giving the tests about the time it takes away from regular instruction and concerns about the technology. As such tests have spread, similar concerns have been echoed across the country.
In Florida this year, a teacher refused to administer a standardized test to kindergartners, objecting to the number of assessments she had to give to the youngest students. The state eventually stopped the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading.
Robert Wagner, an early childhood development specialist for the Maryland State Department of Education, said the state is asking teachers to complete a survey about their experience with the tests. The state also has told teachers that they can give the tests on paper, using the test kit, if “the technology is getting in the way.”
Sarris said she likes that the tests give teachers an opportunity to be with the child one-on-one. And the students, at that age, like the individual attention, she said.
The downside is the length of the test, which can take between 40 minutes to an hour for each child, which means that in some schools, it could take days to get through a single class. Also, she said, some students were tested in September and October. The responses can be different based on the additional class time each child has had, she said.
The State Education Department, which received funding through federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants, is working with Johns Hopkins University to collect and analyze the data, which is due from school systems by Nov. 8. The state plans to release its findings in March.