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Another very scary headline about kindergartners

Two 5-year-olds board their bus to take them to their first day of kindergarten at Gainesboro Elementary School near Winchester, Va., on Aug. 18. (Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star via AP)

Early this year,  I published a post with the headline, “A very scary headline about kindergarteners,” about an op-ed in the Oregonian with this headline: “Kindergarten test results a ‘sobering snapshot.’ ” The op-ed lamented the low literacy skills entering kindergarteners in Oregon had displayed on a test.  I wondered just how 5- and 6-year-olds could be so disappointing to adults.

Well, here’s another one to add to the list of very scary headlines about kindergarteners: “Most Miss. kindergarten students lag, scores show.” This was in the  Clarion-Ledger atop an Associated Press story that also ran in other papers in the state, including the Natchez Democrat, which published it under this headline: “Mississippi kindergarten scores show reading lag.”

The problem in Mississippi? The story says:

A first-ever look at whether Mississippi’s kindergarten students are ready to learn to read shows that two-thirds are not …
Mississippi’s new numbers come from a test of all 40,000 kindergartners in public schools, given within the first month of school this year. The state paid for the tests as part of a $1.1 million contract with Renaissance Learning. They’re meant to measure if students have acquired the skills that are the building blocks of literacy, such as knowing the alphabet, recognizing their own name, or even being able to hold a book right side up. Kim Benton, chief academic officer for the state Department of Education, said some children may not even have such basic skills …
State officials said they couldn’t immediately explain the variations in readiness scores among districts, with some impoverished districts scoring high and some better-off districts scoring low. Kosciusko Superintendent Tony McGee said kindergartners there, who had the lowest average score in the state, may not have been truly comfortable taking a test on a desktop computer with a mouse.

What’s wrong with this?

If the last sentence didn’t jump out at you, it should have. Not only has research shown that young students are not reliable test takers, but it is possible, it turns out, that kids were given a test on a platform they were not able to properly manipulate.

What else is wrong?

Well, as I noted in my previous post, kindergarten readiness tests have been given to kids by teachers for a very long time. What’s different now, besides the standardized versions of these tests that were once written by teachers, is that the results have a lot more importance.

Kindergarten, which was once a time for young kids to socialize and learn through structured play, is now academic, “the new first grade,” as is commonly said. In some places, kids are forced to sit for hours without recess or even a snack. And too many kids are considered failures if they can’t read by the time they enter first grade. The problem with this is that a lot of them can’t. They aren’t developmentally ready. Kids don’t all learn how to read at the same time. Expecting them to is setting up a lot of kids for failure.

What other meaning can you take from a headline that says test scores show kindergartners are lagging? That they are already disappointments.

What else is wrong with this?

The AP article says that the results will be used by early childhood education supporters in Mississippi to lobby for more funding for preschool. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, unless preschools are being turned into academic enterprises too. In my previous piece, I quoted writer Alfie Kohn, who wrote in this post about concerns he has about the new calls for universal early childhood education. Why? Because when people talk about “high-quality programs,” they often mean academic programs, meaning the academic focus is being pushed down to younger and younger kids.

Very few people are talking about the kind of education that would be offered — other than declaring that it should be “high quality.” And that phrase is often interpreted to mean “high intensity”: an accelerated version of skills-based teaching that most early-childhood experts regard as terrible. Poor children, as usual, tend to get the worst of this. … This dreary version of early-childhood education isn’t just disrespectful of children; decades of research show it simply doesn’t work well — and may even be damaging.

Today, parents, teachers, students, principals and superintendents are pushing back against the standardized testing obsession in public schools — and even Education Secretary Arne Duncan has acknowledged that tests are “sucking the oxygen” out of some classrooms. But the amount of testing is not the only problem; quality of testing, who is tested and what the results are being used for are at least as important as the number of exams.

Here is a position paper on the testing of young children by Defending the Early Years, a nonprofit of the Survival Education Fund, a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt educational organization based in Watertown, Mass.

What is the problem?
Today, the majority of classrooms for preschool, kindergarten and primary age children are required to address content standards that prescribe what children are expected to learn. These standards are intended to insure that worthwhile subject matter is taught. Performance standards have been developed to find out if children have learned the prescribed content.
While standards are helpful for identifying valuable content, they can also have a negative impact on children and programs. Some of the problems with standards are that they are not always based on knowledge of how children grow and learn, and often do not take into account children’s needs, capacities, cultures, and unique characteristics. Standards can lead to teaching of skills in ways that are not effective or meaningful, to the narrowing of the curriculum, and to less time for play and hands-on learning experiences that are important foundations for later school success.
It is useful to find out if children have learned the prescribed content, but the way this is most often done is through testing – which also can have a negative impact on children and programs. One of the major problems with the tests is that they are often not based on knowledge of child development and are therefore not suited to the developmental abilities of young children. Another problem is that tests can only measure a narrow range of knowledge and skills, so they often miss important objectives of early childhood education like creativity, problem-solving, and social and emotional development. Teachers who want children to do well on tests may eliminate worthwhile learning experiences, introduce skills too early, or narrow the curriculum in order to “teach to the test”.
Research shows that children learn best when they have hands-on learning experiences, engage in structured play, experience facts within meaningful contexts, invent their own problems to explore and solve, and share their own solutions. The current emphasis on standards and testing has led many schools to over-focus on assessment at the expense of meeting children’s developmental needs and teaching meaningful content. Play and activity-based learning have been disappearing from many early childhood classrooms, and — along with them — children’s natural motivation and love of learning.
What could be done to address this problem?
Program practices:
1. Promote programs that are based on current research on how young children learn best.
2. Promote meaningful, hands-on learning experiences in classrooms for young children.
3. Work to ensure that teachers provide well-thought out educational experiences that demonstrate knowledge and respect for each child.
4. Work to ensure that children have literacy experiences that include storytelling, quality children’s literature, and acting out stories rather than activities that isolate and drill discrete skills.
5. Help teachers skillfully build curriculum from what children can do and understand instead of direct teaching skills that are disconnected from children’s understanding.
6. Encourage schools to respect the language and culture of children and their families, to encourage families to take ownership and to make sure that their history and experiences are included and valued.
7. Encourage schools to design schedules that provide ample time for families and school personnel to meet and work together.
8. Work to ensure that teachers who have specialized training in early childhood education are placed in classrooms for young children.
Assessment practices:
1. Encourage policies that protect children from undue pressure and stress and from judgments that will have a negative impact on their lives in the present and in the future.
2. Promote the use of assessments that are based on observations of children, their development and learning.
3. Work to ensure that classroom assessments are used for the purpose of improving instruction.
4. Support efforts to eliminate testing of young children that is not intended to improve classroom practice.
5. Eliminate labeling and ranking of children based on standardized tests.
What family members can do at home
1. Provide young children with space and time to play at home and in the neighborhood.
2. Read good quality children’s books and limit screen time.
3. Resist reinforcing the school’s agenda — drilling for skills — and replace it with opportunities for meaningful learning

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