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Citing Undue Stress, Arizona Restricts Tests of 1st Graders

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Concerned that a state testing program subjects young children to undue stress, the Arizona legislature has passed a bill that would limit mandatory 1st-grade testing to a sample of students while the state develops alternative assessment measures.

The bill also would scale back the testing of 12th graders, on the grounds that results are released too late in the year to be useful to students who are graduating.

Arizona has administered norm-referenced standardized tests to all students in grades 1-12 since 1980, when a major revision in the state's school-finance formula shifted a greater share of funding responsibility from local school systems to the state.

The testing program was passed to ensure more accountability for how the funds are spent.

In recent years, however, some teachers and parents have questioned the value of devoting so much time to standardized testing, particularly in the early grades.

During the current school year, two national groups representing early-childhood educators have issued statements saying that standardized tests are an unreliable indicator for young children and may result in mislabeling some as learning disabled. (See Education Week, March 30, 1988.)

Concern about growing pressure on young pupils also prompted the North Carolina legislature to discontinue norm-referenced testing of 1st and 2nd graders last year and to seek the development of alternative assessment tools.

The Arizona proposal, which was cleared by the legislature and sent to Gov. Rose Mofford June 8, represents a compromise between legislators who sought to exempt some grades from testing and those who argued that test data are needed at all levels to gauge the progress of education reforms.

The bill calls for testing a representative sample of 1,000 students in the 1st and 12th grades, but it allows districts that prefer to test all students to continue to do so at state expense.

Comparative Data

According to Gary L. Emanuel, deputy associate superintendent of the Arizona education department's basic-skills division, about 550,000 students in grades 1-12 were tested this year.

Students in grades 1-8 took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, while those in grades 9-12 completed the Psychological Corporation's Stanford Achievement Test. The program costs about $6 million.

The tests are designed, Mr. Emanuel said, to "allow students and districts to compare themselves to a national norm'' and to identify areas of strength and weakness.

Teachers and administrators review test scores for each classroom and school, he said, and in some cases the results "drive curriculum revision'' or are weighed, with other factors, in identifying children who need extra help.

'Stressed Out'

Those who have sought to limit the testing say norm-referenced tests, which are designed to include material pupils do not know in order to differentiate among students, are harmful to children in the early grades.

"It is very hard to explain to someone who is 6, 7, or 8 years old that they shouldn't try to understand everything,'' said Ann K. Gould, a Mesa, Ariz., teacher who chairs a coalition of educators and parents called the Committee for Effective Student Evaluation.

Even when their test scores are in the 90th percentile, Mr. Emanuel added, "children oftentimes feel they flunked it because there are so many questions they've never heard of before.''

Ms. Gould also noted that the testing format, which prohibits teachers from responding to questions, is confusing to students accustomed to the interaction and teamwork teachers try to foster.

"There is no way to prove that it damages their attitude toward testing ... but it accomplishes nothing and eats into their quality instruction time,'' said Bev Herman, a member of the House education committee who sponsored a bill to remove both 1st and 2nd graders from the testing program.

Pamela L. Howard, a parent active in CESE, added that the 33-page test, which she said could take up to 12 hours to administer with directions and breaks, is too demanding for many young children.

She said her concern about the test grew when she saw it administered and observed "children crying because of how upset and stressed out and frustrated they were.''

Those who support continued testing, however, maintain that the experience is only as stressful as parents and teachers make it.

Role of Adults

"Whenever there is a child afraid of a test, there is an adult involved,'' said Gerald C. Helmstadter, director of the psychology in education division at Arizona State University.

"Sensitive and compassionate teachers, working with parents, can ameliorate the few cases where a child is unusually apprehensive,'' said Mary E. North, basic-skills director and test coordinator for the Peoria, Ariz., schools.

She added that 1st-grade scores offer "considerable diagnostic information'' for 2nd-grade teachers in her district, who review the results along with other factors in recommending students for remedial or tutorial programs.

Mr. Helmstadter, who testified against a bill to limit testing that failed last year, argued that the program should begin early to send children and parents the right "signal'' about the importance of academics and "to make sure a particular school or classroom isn't slipping.''

He maintained that resistance to the examination is a function of inadequate training for teachers in the administration of the test and of their fear that they will be evaluated on the basis of students' scores.

Apart from the pedagogical issues involved, budgetary concerns also have sparked attempts to cut back on testing, according to Judy M. Richardson, director of school finance for the education department.

She noted that a joint legislative budget committee has recommended dropping half the grades from the program to help balance the state's budget.

Legislators are likely to consider the proposal "as a solution to the budgetary crisis'' before the session ends in the next few weeks, Ms. Richardson said.

Many observers agree, however, that attempts to cut back on testing in the past have failed largely because of the accountability issue.

Magic Numbers

"It has become extremely important for legislators and educators to show magic numbers,'' said Ms. Gould, who noted that test results are featured prominently in local newspapers and used as a selling point by local realtors.

Educators say the move toward alternative tests intensified last year, when the legislature passed an initiative to draft "goals for educational excellence'' for each subject and grade level.

As a joint committee of legislators and educators began work on the project, some members found "that the kind of goals they wanted ... are not the kinds of things measured in norm-referenced tests,'' Ms. Richardson said.

As a result, she said, the committee has been exploring the possibility of developing other measures. One alternative being considered is a criterion-referenced test, which would assess students' progress in meeting specific state standards rather than ranking them against a "floating standard,'' Ms. Richardson said.

Compromise Is Struck

Responding to concern that the current testing program places too much pressure on young children, and lacks utility for senior high-school students, the state board last year endorsed the concept of exempting 1st and 2nd graders from the program.

The board also suggested that 12th graders be exempted because of the absenteeism and lack of motivation evident at that grade level on testing days. Seniors feel that the results are meaningless to them, said Mr. Emanuel, because they will have graduated before the scores are tallied.

The House passed a bill striking 1st and 12th graders from the program in February, and the Senate adopted the version calling for sample testing two weeks ago. The House concurred and sent the bill to Governor Mofford for her signature last week.

Although all 2nd graders still would be tested under the bill, it would allow districts to spread the testing process over a two-week period for 1st and 2nd graders to relieve pressure and provide more breaks.

The bill also directs the education department to evaluate the testing program, explore alternatives, and report back to the legislature next January.

Jacque Steiner, chairman of the Senate education committee, said she had pressed the idea of continuing to test a sample of students in the 1st and 12th grades so that the state could maintain a data base for all grade levels while researching alternative approaches.

"We don't want to abandon what we're doing without knowing where we're going to go,'' she said.

Partial Victory

Teachers and parents who sought to limit the program say the provision allowing districts to continue testing all students at state expense diminishes their victory, since many districts may proceed with the examination.

Ms. Howard noted, however, that leaving the decision up to local school administrators will make it easier to lobby for change.

Although it does not eliminate early testing entirely, said Susan Bredekamp, director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children's academy of early-childhood programs, the Arizona proposal represents "movement toward what we've been working toward.''

"It is certainly an economy in terms of time, energy, and resources,'' she said, and "it is a step in the right direction''--toward the development of other kinds of assessments.

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