Brian Whiston is the superintendent of education in Michigan. It’s not an easy job. When he took over the state Department of Education last summer, the Detroit Free Press reported:
Michigan students are falling flat on a rigorous national exam while many other states are showing significant improvement. Scores on state exams paint a mixed picture of achievement. A growing number of districts are spiraling into financial disaster. And the debate looms large over testing, teacher evaluations and how to fix what’s ailing schools in Detroit.
Whiston has a lot of ideas about what he wants to do to improve public education. He has reduced time that students spend on standardized testing, and he pushed for the state Education Department to be more collaborative with districts rather than confrontational. He recently said in a speech to educators that they are the “experts” about what is good for kids in school and that their voice should be respected by policymakers.
Now he has a new idea. He wants to change the standardized testing that students take in the spring, even though the M-STEP, or Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, is only in its second year. M-STEP replaced the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, which was supposed to be succeeded in 2014-15 after 40 years in use by Common Core-aligned SBAC exam. Why didn’t it? Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) decided he didn’t want to use that test amid national controversy over the Common Core State Standards and federally funded aligned tests.
Now Whiston wants yet another change. He told legislators last week that he wants a new system of tests that students would take two or possibly three times a year to measure growth, each of them shorter than the current once-a-year test.
Currently, students start taking standardized tests in grade 3. That’s not fast enough for Whiston. He said he wants testing to begin in kindergarten with “age-appropriate” tests, according to Michigan Radio. He wants the test results to be given to teachers quickly so they can use them — which would be a good idea if there really were “age-appropriate” tests for kindergartners and if the tests were well-drawn.
It is most certainly the case that it has become commonplace in recent years to force kindergartners to take standardized tests. The ubiquity of the practice does not make it a sound one. Many experts in early childhood education and development adamantly oppose such testing.
For one thing, young children are notoriously bad test takers, unable to sit and sustain real attention for long periods of time — even if in some schools young kids are forced to sit for long periods of time. Furthermore, research over years has shown that young children’s progress in school is best assessed by teachers who know how to observe their students and interpret what they see. As early childhood education expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten wrote on this blog:
Of course, we need to assess young children’s progress. Without appropriate assessments, teachers cannot alter their practice to further children’s learning…. The assessments used should help teachers focus on children’s natural developmental progressions and variations, and should be used to help teachers better support children’s learning. Accepting anything for our young learners other than an engaging and developmentally appropriate curriculum and teacher-driven assessments is a disservice to them, their parents and their teachers.
Defending the Early Years, a nonprofit project of the Survival Education Fund, wrote a position paper in 2014 about the testing of young kids, which says in part:
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”.
Whiston’s idea comes less than a year after Snyder proposed starting a new program to test kindergartners to determine the effectiveness of state-funded preschool programs. Noted the National Association for the Education of Young Children:
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.
Whiston said he wants to keep the M-STEP for at least another year to allow for an easy transition from one exam to the other. There is nothing easy for teachers and students about being forced to adapt to a new test, much less deal with three different exams within a few years.
Such testing turmoil is not exclusive to Michigan; a number of states have been changing tests as well as standards, reflecting the chaos that years of federal policy — first with President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and then with President Obama’s Race to the Top — has caused in public schools. With the end of both the NCLB law and the Race to the Top funding program, and a new U.S. K-12 education law being passed by Congress last December, which gives the states more education policy-making policy, many had hoped things would improve.
Don’t hold your breath.