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‘Oh, you’re a teacher, you paint all day?’ Not even close, one teacher says

Kimberley Asselin teaches her kindergarten class at Riverside Elementary School on Tuesday May 19, 2015 in Fairfax County, Va.. Asselin is a first year teacher. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

What surprised Fairfax County kindergarten teacher Kimberley Asselin the most during her first year on the job? How much kindergarten had changed in the nearly two decades since she was a student.

“It’s not the kindergarten we went to,” said Asselin, 24. “It’s very draining and I don’t think people realize that. They say ‘Oh, you’re a teacher, you paint all day?’ No that’s not it at all.”

Asselin, who was profiled in a Washington Post story about her first year on the job, said that testing has tempered her enthusiasm, with a regular regimen of preparation and the stress of getting students who face challenges such as poverty and English language learning up to speed.

What is making one first-year teacher reconsider her future? Lots of testing.

Though still two years away from Virginia’s first state Standards of Learning exams — which begin in the third grade with reading and math assessments — Asselin said that her young students already are learning to read, write and study the basics of arithmetic. The days of kindergarten play time with the class guinea pig or kitchen set are over, Asselin said. Instead, she spends at least two hours every day of uninterrupted instruction on literacy. Then there’s math, and life science and art.

“Adding and subtracting!,” Asselin said one recent morning during a visit to her classroom. “They’re five. It’s insane.”

The more rigorous curriculum means that she’s required to test her students multiple times throughout the year to monitor their progress.

As a kindergarten teacher, Asselin hands out assessments to her students as part of an effort within Fairfax County to see what the children are learning or need to work on. Students are expected to be able to count to 100 by fives and 10s, and to demonstrate how to tell time on a clock, among other tasks. Like other Virginia districts, Fairfax wants to know how students are doing as they progress, part of an effort to identify students who need additional support before state-mandated testing begins.

Charles B. Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said that most Virginia school divisions use diagnostic assessments — such as PALS — prior to the beginning of the SOLs. PALS — which stands for Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening — is the "state-provided screening tool for Virginia's Early Intervention Reading Initiative," according to its Web site, and it aims to "reduce the number of children with reading problems through early diagnosis and immediate intervention."

In districts that use PALS, all kindergartners are assessed in the fall and spring, with tasks such as identifying rhyming words, recognizing letters, spelling and other reading-related exercises. The program was developed at the University of Virginia and is in use in other states.

Fairfax County schools officials said kindergartners face a series of assessments during the year, according to John Torre, a school system spokesman: “Teachers use formative assessments on a regular basis determined at the school level. In addition, teachers assess mathematical skills each quarter using the Kindergarten Math Reasoning Assessment (K-MRA). This series of math assessments are performance-based and assess critical math skills like number sense.”

Once Asselin’s students reach the third grade, they will begin a series of end-of-year SOL exams. The tests are mandated by the state and students must pass the exams in order to graduate.

In Virginia, schools receive graded "report cards" based on how students perform on the SOLs and other criteria. Virginia is one of a handful of states that did not adopt the nationwide education standards known as the Common Core State Standards, though the state Department of Education says the SOLs closely track the standards and that the state's college and career-ready performance expectations are aligned to the Common Core and international standards.

For Asselin, the testing in Fairfax means she must push her children to do well. But many of her students face difficulties at home that make her work in the classroom more challenging.

“You expect that the kids coming into your class have parents who read to them at home,” Asselin said. “With the standards in kindergarten rising, a lot of that relies on parents to teach [their children] their letters. I have to step back and say, okay, how am I going to teach that kid to read if they don’t know their letters and numbers? That puts a lot of stress on teachers.”