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Early Testing Said To Have 'Long-Term Negative Effects'

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WASHINGTON--The National Association for the Education of Young Children last week issued a strong indictment of the use of standardized tests to assess children's readiness for school, a practice the group says has become increasingly common but is often abused.

In its statement, the 60,000-member organization argues that using test results to delay children's entry into kindergarten--or to deter their promotion to 1st grade--produces no demonstrable educational benefits.

Such policies may instead have "long-term negative effects'' on children, the statement says.

Georgia recently became the only state to mandate that a specific test be used in deciding whether to promote kindergartners.

But school districts throughout the country are moving toward "increased use of standardized testing with younger and younger children,'' said Susan Bredekamp, director of the NAEYC's national academy of early-childhood programs.

"Our children are being tested too early and failed too soon,'' said Ms. Bredekamp, who was among the panelists discussing the statement at last week's news conference.

"Mass paper-and-pencil standardized testing'' of 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds "is becoming one of the more dismaying rites of spring in America,'' she said.

The group's statement contends that extensive testing narrows and "misdirects'' the curriculum and drains instructional time and resources "without clear demonstration that the investment is beneficial.''

Tests Lack Validity

One of the most troubling aspects of the trend, however, is that few of the tests meet "acceptable standards of reliability and validity'' for making predictions about children's future achievement, the group maintains.

Tynette Hills, a program specialist with the New Jersey education department, said standardized tests often yield inconclusive results for young children, who are undergoing rapid growth and may be "inept with pencils and test forms'' as well as easily distracted.

Child-development experts say the Metropolitan Readiness Test, one of the more reliable measures, has an error rate of about 30 percent when used for placement purposes. Based on other widely used readiness tests, they say, there is about a 50 percent chance that a child will be placed in an inappropriate program or incorrectly "failed.''

Deleterious Effects

Many parents are being advised, on the basis of such tests, to wait a year before enrolling children in school, according to the NAEYC, and large numbers of children "flunk'' kindergarten or are tracked into transitional programs.

"It is not unusual'' for 20 percent or more of a district's kindergarten-age children to be affected by such policies, Ms. Bredekamp said.

"These practices have been implemented in the absence of research documenting that they positively affect children's later academic achievement,'' says the statement.

The group cites as evidence studies by Lorrie A. Shepard, professor of education at the University of Boulder, and Mary Lee Smith, professor of education at Arizona State.

Based on a compilation of research and their own study of four Boulder, Colo., schools, they found that children who repeated kindergarten did not outperform children with similar characteristics who were promoted.

They also found that the children who were held back were less well-adjusted in later years and had poor attitudes toward school.

Many educators who favor kindergarten retention for immature children share the belief that early retention is "not as stigmatizing as it would be if it were done later,'' Ms. Shepard said in an interview. "But our finding is that it is virtually the same.''

Due to testing biases that fail to recognize maturational and cultural differences, retention has a disproportionately negative impact on boys and low-income and minority children, said Asa Hilliard, Fuller E. Calloway professor of urban education at Georgia State University.

Mr. Hilliard added that grouping kindergarten-age children by ability overlooks research documenting the negative effects of "tracking'' in the later grades, particularly for poor children.

Schools testing for that purpose, he said, "are imposing from above a failed system on children below.''

Failure of Curriculum

The NAEYC argues in its statement that increasing reliance on standardized tests to screen young children is symptomatic of a primary-school curriculum that has become increasingly inappropriate for children's developmental needs.

"The mass testing of young children is part of the bigger issue of pushing academic subjects at too early an age,'' said Ms. Bredekamp. Spurred in part by higher educational standards imposed by the education-reform movement, the trend has caused many kindergartens to resemble 1st-grade classrooms, she noted.

With schools and teachers under increasing pressure to be accountable for educational results, "standardized tests are just one strategy that is being used as a way to more accurately place children so as to prevent failure,'' the statement argues.

Although some educators and parents recognize that the programs are too demanding, many feel powerless to fight the system, the panelists said last week.

In a New York case cited by the NAEYC, a school board granted parents the right to move their child out of a transitional kindergarten and into the school's regular program after the parents filed an appeal based on special-education statutes.

Ms. Hills also said many school systems are beginning to explore multi-age groupings, ungraded classrooms, and other approaches that would allow young children to progress at their own rates.

For example, a report released last week by a school-readiness task force appointed by Superintendent of Instruction Bill Honig of California recommends an "integrated, experiential'' program for 4- to 6-year-olds and a "drastically altered'' method of testing.

Role For Testing

The NAEYC says standardized tests can play an important role in identifying individual pupils' needs and planning instruction. But panelists said mass testing should not occur before 3rd grade and should be used in conjunction with other assessment measures, including observations by parents, teachers, and other professionals.

The NAEYC's position statement was endorsed by the National Association for Early-Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, a group of consultants that adopted a similar statement last fall.

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