Robyn Noble is a public school kindergarten teacher in Providence, R.I., who has become alarmed at the excessive standardized testing of young children, as well as the design of the exams and what is — and is not — done with the results. Noble sent me an e-mail saying that her students will soon be taking the Star Early Literary Test and explaining what she thinks about the exercise.

The Star Early Literary Test, according to the Renaissance Learning Web site, assesses “eight key domains of early literacy and numeracy.” The eight domains are print concepts, vocabulary acquisition and use, phonological awareness, phonics and word recognition, fluency, counting and cardinality, operations and algebraic thinking, measurement and data. The Web site says that “145 skills are grouped into 32 closely-related skill areas” and that “the domains and skills below are grouped into three major areas that relate to CCSS standards.” CCSS refers to the Common Core State Standards (and it is worth noting here that many early childhood education experts have expressed concerns that the standards for the youngest students are not developmentally appropriate).

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Here’s what Noble wrote in her e-mail, which I am publishing with her permission:

My kindergartners will take this test on Tuesday, their 15th day of school. I’m sure most of them will score at the bottom of the scale since this uses vocabulary they have never heard before: beginning sound, vowel sound; and words which they have no idea how to read. The math pictures are difficult for even me to decipher. The directions on how to take the test, using the keyboard or mouse are also quite confusing. My students have grown up on touch screens, so the return to the mouse, I’m sure, will be baffling.
I will learn a lot more about my students as I watch them take the test, than I will from their test scores. These scores will be used to sort them into reading groups for my teaching convenience. I will in turn, alarm their parents as I explain that they are reading “below grade level.”  I have been able to convince the reading coach at my school that we should wait until January before we write reading levels on their report cards. Meanwhile, these scores will automatically be entered into their electronic school records along with their attendance, disciplinary actions, home addresses, parent information, etc. School to prison pipeline, indeed. All paid for by Rhode Island’s Race to the Top money.
When No Child Left Behind became law, I was in my fourth year of public school teaching. My son was in kindergarten. When I started, we used units of study, where the children and I explored actual content: apples, butterflies, bugs, trucks, dirt. I taught the alphabet and about half the class could really read when they went onto first grade. The numbers are the same despite the torture of explicit instruction in phonemic awareness. The only difference is that 15 years ago it was normal for children to enter first grade without knowing how to read fluently, but now it is not. I have all this testing information and still no resources to actually do something about it. No pull outs for the struggling children, a class size of 26 which can be quite noisy as I read with a small group of five. Have you ever seen 21 five-year olds left to their own devices while a teacher sits in the corner? Oh sure, I give them assignments…..and why exactly do five-year-olds have to read in the first place?  Shouldn’t poor children especially be using this year to catch up on vocabulary, story structure and self control?
We as a nation have lost our minds. Test scores are nothing but new codes for the kind of children in the schools. Are they poor children of color? Low test scores. Are they middle class children with educated parents? High test scores. Well, here’s the first test. Computer savvy children will probably do well, having had some experience with PC’s at home. Poorer children who have only had their parents’ phones to work with: not so much. Let the separation begin.

A Star Early Literary practice test suggests how some kindergartners could be thrown by the test. For students unaccustomed to using a computer, the instructions could be confusing. They quickly explain how to answer questions by either mouse or the keyboard and provide little practice time. Words are used that are not likely to be familiar to many kindergartners; one question asks them to pick out the word “prescription” from a list that includes “preparation” and “pretended.”

Certainly it is important for teachers to know what their students can do at the beginning of a school year so they can figure out how to help them progress, but putting kids in front of a computer that many are not accustomed to using doesn’t seem like a great way for them to find out, does it?

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