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The kindergarten testing mess

Kimberley Asselin, on May 19, teaches her kindergarten class at Riverside Elementary School in Fairfax County, Va. (Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Kindergarten wasn’t what Kimberley Asselin expected when the school year started last fall — and, unfortunately, that turned out to be a bad thing.

Asselin, a first-year teacher in Virginia who had dreamed about teaching since she was a child, learned what many new teachers around the country have: That the K-12 experience has become dominated by standardized testing. And if there is one grade where it seems most detrimental and concerning, it is kindergarten.

[What is making one first-year teacher consider her future? Lots of testing]

My Post colleague T. Rees Shapiro wrote this story about Asselin and about why her first-year teaching experience at Riverside Elementary School, which serves a low-income area of Fairfax County, has her reconsidering whether she really can stomach a long career as a teacher under the circumstances she found herself in this year. The story, which is worth a read, says:

Asselin said that some of her children eat their only two meals of the day at school. Others only watch Spanish-language television at home and have struggled with English. She said the additional weight of testing has at times been overwhelming.
“There is a lot more pressure than I expected, a lot more stress than I expected,” Asselin said. “I would go home and cry. I felt defeated some days. … You’re considered a good teacher if all your kids pass. But if they don’t then what? Are you a bad teacher? That’s not fair considering all that’s going on in your children’s lives. … If a kid is starving in your classroom they are not paying attention.”

[A very scary headline about kindergartners]

Her story reinforces others that I have been publishing for some time about our standardized testing obsession in general and about its special ugliness in kindergarten, where children who are 5 or  6 are often required to sit for hours on academic work, in some cases with little or no recess.

Once a time for socialization and learning through structured play, kindergarten is now an academic year, even for young kids who may not be developmentally ready for the work.  Child development experts have bemoaned the change, saying that there is no evidence that forcing young kids to sit in their chairs and do academic work is useful in their intellectual development, but the voices of these experts have been ignored by policymakers. Also ignored have been assessment experts and teachers who say that many of the testing instruments used for kindergartners are badly designed and not reflective of what kids can do.

[Why kindergarten teachers don’t want to give this test to students]

During this past school year, many kindergarten teachers have not only become alarmed about the number of assessments and days spent testing their students, but also about the tests themselves. One area of concern has been new “kindergarten readiness assessments,” which have become all the rage these days as efforts to expand early childhood education have grown.

There is no consensus on what these assessment should be used for and how they should be created, according to Stephanie Feeney, professor emerita of education at the University of Hawaii and a member of the advisory board of nonprofit group Defending the Early Years. These tools can refer to instruments — tests, guided observation, performance tasks, checklists — with different purposes, including helping a teacher tailor instruction to individual students, determining if a preschool program was successful in preparing students for kindergarten or deciding whether a child is ready for the rigors of kindergarten. Some can be useful; others worse than useless.

[Kindergarten teacher: ‘There is a good possibility I will get fired, but…]

Not surprisingly, there’s been trouble in classrooms as a result. For example, in Maryland, the state developed a new Common Core-aligned “kindergarten readiness assessment” — but hundreds of kindergarten teachers who used the computer-based test for the first time last fall complained that the assessment is too long for young kids wasted enormous amounts of their time, and won’t offer results that can help them teach kids. Many also said that they had not been properly trained to administer the test. The Maryland State Education Association, a teachers union, urged the state Board of Education to suspend the Kindergarten Readiness Assessments until questions about its effectiveness and administration were resolved. The state didn’t, but said it would be revised.

Despite teachers’ concerns about the test and the validity of the results, the Maryland Department of Education last month released a statement about the results as if they were definitive. The release said:

Maryland’s new Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) finds that nearly half of Maryland’s incoming students in the fall of 2014 were fully ready for learning. The data, released today in a report presented to the Maryland State Board of Education, offers a new baseline for assessing kindergarten readiness to help elevate readiness for all Maryland school children.

The release did note that the assessment is going to be changed but still, again, took the results as if they were not compromised by the issues teachers identified:

MSDE worked with local educators to develop the KRA, and has since engaged educators, including kindergarten teachers, to strengthen the assessment process.  For example, next year’s version of the KRA will be 20 percent shorter, with some of the more time-intensive items removed. An enhanced reporting feature will be in place in 2015-16 when teachers can get on-time reports of their students’ skill levels.
MSDE has worked with school systems to improve access to technology and Wi-Fi for teachers working with the KRA, and MSDE will provide additional professional development for teachers.

Adam Mendelson, spokesman for the Maryland State Education Association, said in an e-mail:

It doesn’t take another test to tell us what an overwhelming amount of research already does: that investing in pre-kindergarten and early childhood education can make a world of difference in narrowing achievement gaps and improving educational and life outcomes for students. Kindergarten teachers have raised strong concerns about the KRA, and we will see when it is given next year how well the state responded to those concerns. Assessments should help educators improve instruction for the students in their classrooms and not take away too much instructional time—standards which the KRA did not meet this year.

Meanwhile, in Illinois, some school districts sought waivers from a new kindergarten assessment that many educators said was time-consuming and ineffective. In Florida, the Department of Education last fall suspended the administration of the Florida Assessments for Instruction in Reading, or FAIR, after one teacher named Susan Bowles publicly declared she was refusing to administer it because it was inappropriate for young kids.

And in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder (R) this year proposed starting a new program to test kindergartners as a way of determining the effectiveness of state-funded preschool programs. Aside from the fact that young kids are notoriously bad test takers, there are other problems with the idea, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children:

While there is broad consensus that early childhood assessment can play a vital role in improving instruction within the classroom, how assessment of young children can and should—and should not—be used to determine program effectiveness is more contentious….A one-time snapshot of a child entering a kindergarten classroom cannot capture all of the cumulative experiences in programs, in the home, and in the community of a young child from birth to that day in kindergarten. Such assessments should not be seen as reflecting on the quality of early care and education during the prekindergarten year in isolation from demographic risk, experiences in the home and the community, other early care and education experiences, and the resources available to support professional development and improve quality.

It’s a decent bet, given the history, that expert opinions will continue to be ignored and kindergartners will be forced to take tests their teachers don’t want to give.

You may also be interested in:

A very scary headline about kindergartners

Report: Requiring kindergartners to read — as Common Core does — may harm some

Why kindergarten teachers don’t want to give this test to students

‘Sweat shop’ kindergarten: ‘It’s maddening’

You won’t believe these kindergarten schedules

Kindergarten teacher: ‘There is a good possibility I will get fired, but…