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A cautionary lesson in ‘raising the stakes’ for young students

Here’s a cautionary post about the unintended consequences of the high-stakes testing of very young children. Glory Tobiason,  a former ESL teacher and current PhD student in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, writes about a new policy passed by the D.C. Public Charter School Board to give new standardized tests children aged 3, 4 and 5 for the purposes of assessing their academic progress and ranking schools according to the results.

By Glory Tobiason

The D.C. Public Charter School Board recently adopted a new evaluation tool to measure the Early Childhood Education programs of district charter schools.  The tool will take into account student scores on math and literacy tests, as well as other factors like teacher interaction, attendance, and mission-specific goals of the program.

The evaluation tool is not intended for use in typical “high-stakes testing” decisions: school funding, school closures, and the hiring and firing of teachers.  But this new tool is  being introduced in the midst of an education system utterly steeped in this sort of accountability.

For this reason, the same oft-expressed reservations about using test scores to make consequential educational decisions for older students are relevant here: Do these score adequately capture what we mean by “student success”?  Might this lead to “teaching to the test” or narrowing of the curriculum?  Will students who score low on these tests be treated differently than their peers?

The high-stakes, high-pressure atmosphere currently surrounding the teaching profession has teachers watching their backs and paying serious attention to assessments.  This can, in turn, have very real consequences for instructional practice, classroom structures, and, therefore, the schooling experience of children.

Because of the distinct nature of early childhood education, I am convinced that there is a unique risk posed by the board’s decision, one whose magnitude may eclipse the concerns mentioned above.  Let me illustrate this risk with an example from my own kindergarten classroom.

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Morning Routine had come along nicely with this class.  After stowing backpacks in cubbies and homework folders on Ms. Glory’s desk, the students settled on the big carpet for our Community Meeting, a time to greet and share and set a tone for the coming day.

From here we transitioned to Sight Word Work, and the kids liked this part of the routine.  They each got to retrieve their own little binder, determine which six sight words they needed to work on, practice those words, and then flag down Ms. Glory, at which point I’d come over and listen to them read their six words.  Successful reading meant you got to choose what to do next: head to the library for silent reading or choose one of your friends and help them practice their six words.

This was a sweet and agreeable group, one that could handle this level of autonomy and peer interaction.  Most early finishers chose the library about half the time and helping a friend about half the time.  When students did elect to help a friend, it was fun to watch their social affairs play out.  Do you choose to help the pretty girl and risk getting teased by your buds?  Do you choose to help the boy with the cool Spiderman folder, even though you don’t really know him very well?  Do you choose to help your best friend and overlook the fact that she wouldn’t let you play with the basketball during recess yesterday?

The mood in the classroom during this time was lovely: relaxed, supportive, industrious.  Some students working independently, some cooperatively, and some enjoying a few solitary minutes hunched over a book in the library.

Then I changed things.

I was encouraged by an administrator to increase my distribution of “scholar dollars,” so I announced that if you chose to help a friend, when your friend finally passed the test, you’d each receive one of these relatively valuable units in our classroom economy.  In other words, I raised the stakes.  After about a week, the entire nature of Sight Word Work had changed.

For one thing, it was a lot less fun.  There was a strain in the air, and the little peer teaching sessions got downright intense.  Tempers flared.  When your friend didn’t pass his test on the first try, frustration turned to arguing, which turned to tears.

The library was quickly deserted.  Why waste time on Goodnight Moon when you could be raking in cash doing something else?

It took no time at all for the early finishers to figure out that some friends were better investments than others.  It just made more sense to partner with your seatmate (who was quick at this sort of work and often an early finisher himself) instead of the boy at the next table (whose careful, steady diligence meant he was often one of the last students to wrap up).  You were probably better off avoiding the girl with the braids (whose pronunciation was flavored by her concurrent emerging literacy in Spanish).  And the little guy with glasses was, let’s face it, a liability in this context: his impish sense of humor and keen social awareness made him distractible beyond belief.

Deeply troubled, I watched this social revolution play out and internally berated myself for not having anticipated it.  Could Sight Word Work be salvaged?  Would the kids recover or had I left some indelible imprint on their little psyches?  Shortly thereafter, I reworked Morning Routine entirely, this time with a newfound respect for the level of influence I hadn’t realized I wielded.

*          *          *

I tell this story to illustrate how a small adjustment in a classroom structure can have repercussions for students far beyond what was intended (in this case, increased student fluency with sight words).  Teachers tend to their students’ academic development, yes, but they also cultivate cognitive, emotional, civic, and social development.  And classroom structures are the wireframes in which all of this learning takes place.

Teachers of young children have an awesome responsibility.  The reflective, independent thought that we celebrate in older students is still largely nascent in kindergartners.  We encourage (and support) high schoolers to define for themselves what they value, but preschoolers’ lives are shaped primarily by the choices of the adults around them.  And what makes teaching this age group so delightful is that, by and large, they have unbridled enthusiasm for whatever classroom structures exist.  But the other side of this coin, the more ethically perilous side, is that they also internalize those structures very, very easily.

My point is that the classroom education of young students is a precious responsibility, one that we are obligated to handle with the utmost respect and caution.  When we talk about evaluating early childhood education programs using student assessments, we aren’t just talking about “empowering parents” or “enabling meaningful school choice.”  This isn’t a straightforward matter of “facilitating data-driven decision-making.”

Policies influence teachers.  Teachers shape classrooms.  And in these classrooms, very young students do some of the most important learning they will ever be asked to do: they sort through and internalize the value systems that will guide them for the rest of their lives.

Clarification: Changing language about use of test