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Mississippi To End Standardized Tests For Kindergartners

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The Mississippi Education Department will discontinue statewide standardized testing of kindergarten students next year, amid concerns that its test is shifting the kindergarten curriculum toward formal instruction and away from approaches that allow children to progress at their own rates.

Superintendent of Education Richard A. Boyd said he decided to halt the $47,000 testing program after hearing reports that it had caused some "erosion'' in the state's approach to kindergarten, which stresses "active learning'' through exploration and play.

According to educators evaluating the program, many teachers felt pressured to stray from such methods and use formal pencil and paper drills in order to help prepare children for the test.

"We have desperately tried to provide kindergarten in a developmentally appropriate manner for children in Mississippi,'' said Gloria C. Correro, coordinator for the early-childhood curriculum and evaluation center at Mississippi State University. "What was happening was that teachers were letting the test become a curriculum guide, and that was never intended.''

The center has evaluated the kindergarten program under a contract with the state education department.

"If our giving a statewide test was giving the impression that teachers should be teaching to that test, in effect we became part of the problem,'' Mr. Boyd said.

Early-childhood experts say his July decision signals a victory in the movement to ease increasing academic pressure on young children.

"I hope this is the harbinger of a trend and that it will lead us toward more useful kinds of evaluation of young children,'' said Harriet Egertson, a consultant for the Nebraska education department and past president of the National Association of Early-Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education.

Tried To 'Do it Right'

Mississippi enacted full-day kindergarten as part of the state's 1982 education-reform law and launched the program on a pilot basis in 1985. Since then, enrollment has grown from about 4,500 to about 38,000.

Although the program's goals include broadening children's view of the world and developing their thinking processes, communication skills, and physical coordination, its leading aim is to help them develop a positive self-concept.

The state's kindergarten guidelines say children should spend at least 60 percent of the school day in "learning centers'' that allow them to select activities that are linked with study units--such as art, dramatic play, blocks, and story-telling.

Although children theoretically may progress into more academic skills if they are ready, the guidelines indicate that children should not be pressured to perform in ways that are not "developmentally appropriate'' for their age, Ms. Correro said.

Being among the last states to institute kindergarten "allowed us to really do it right,'' Mr. Boyd said, by adopting principles endorsed by child-development experts.

Skewing the Curriculum

Because the kindergarten program was enacted as a separate grant program, the legislature directed the education department to conduct annual evaluations and submit reports on student achievement.

The main component of the evaluation is the Psychological Corporation's Stanford Early School Achievement Test, which assesses children's knowledge of the environment, sounds and letters, mathematics, listening, and reading.

Because it gauges some skills not included in the kindergarten goals and requires proficiency in filling in answer sheets, the test has prompted many teachers to spend much of the day on academic drills with ditto sheets and workbooks, according to Esther M. Howard, director of the early-childhood curriculum and evaluation center.

Because administrators place such a high premium on test scores, she said, teachers "feel pressured to do everything they possibly can to get the child ready, even if they know that is not the best for the child, because they feel it's a reflection on their teaching.''

Ms. Howard said teachers have told her in letters and in conversations that the test runs counter to "the philosophy of the state, which is that you look at each child and you give that child what the child is ready for.''

The test could offer useful information, Ms. Correro said, if it were given individually and if a pretest were included to measure gains over the year. But administering it in large classes with little chance for teacher interaction makes the results unreliable, she said.

Linda Davis, a kindergarten teacher at the Sudduth Elementary School in Starkville, also contends that the concepts tested are too abstract for many young children, and that their eyes and hand muscles are not adequately developed for prolonged paper and pencil work.

"They are trying to do things they are not physically capable of,'' she said. "It's like teaching calculus to 6th graders.''

Pressure Eased

On the basis of such concerns, Mr. Boyd said, he decided last year not to accept bids to renew the three-year testing contract but formally announced his decision only last month.

Kindergarten testing will continue through the coming school year, he said, but will cease when the current contract expires in 1989.

"I'm very excited and hopeful that what little ground we may have lost, we may be able to recover since the test won't be hanging over teachers' heads,'' said Cathy Grace, an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern Mississippi and former early-childhood coordinator for the education department.

The decision "may be the only thing that saves us from losing the developmentally appropriate philosophy,'' added Ms. Howard.

The legislature's decision this year to provide funding for kindergarten under the state's school-aid formula rather than as a separate grant eases the pressure to prove the merit of the program annually through test scores, Mr. Boyd noted.

No Opposition Seen

Jim C. Simpson, chairman of the House education committee, predicted that legislators would not object to halting the testing, since "a clear majority of them have been convinced'' of the kindergarten program's value.

Most children have scored near the national mean on the kindergarten test, Ms. Correro said, and those who began kindergarten in the pilot year have scored above the mean in the 1st and 2nd grades.

Olin E. Ray, Gov. Raymond Mabus's special assistant for education, said he knew of no opposition to Mr. Boyd's decision. And he agreed that other assessments could be used to evaluate the kindergarten program.

Mr. Boyd said the department could continue to track students' progress through 3rd-grade scores on the state's basic-skills examination and other assessment tools.

The department now collects information on about 15,000 children, Ms. Howard said, through assessments using teacher and parent evaluations and children's own perceptions to measure changes in their physical development, self-concept, and creativity.

The department is considering a proposal by the early-childhood curriculum and evaluation center to train teachers in the use of those assessments, Ms. Correro said.

Signs Of Change?

According to FairTest, a nonprofit group that monitors standardized testing, Mississippi is one of four states, including Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana, that now mandate statewide standardized testing in kindergarten.

As part of a major education-reform bill approved last month, the West Virginia legislature also has mandated readiness tests for all kindergarten students beginning in 1990.

Kindergarten testing also has become increasingly common in school systems across the nation. But early-childhood experts in recent months have cautioned against overreliance on tests, which they say are inappropriate to young children's skills and unreliable indicators of their abilities.

Both the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the state specialists' group have adopted position statements critical of standardized testing for children in the early grades. And the American Federation of Teachers adopted a position statement at its July convention advising against its use except on an experimental basis with the approval of parents and teachers. (See story, page 17.)

Georgia drew criticism from early-childhood experts earlier this year when it became the first state to mandate that kindergarten test scores be used as a criterion in promotion decisions.

Such criticism appears, in fact, to be prompting some policymakers to reconsider the issue. For example:

  • The North Carolina legislature, which banned statewide standardized tests for 1st and 2nd graders last year, passed a measure last month prohibiting their use at the local level and directing the state board of education to provide more appropriate assessment tools.
  • The Arizona legislature approved a bill in June that would limit standardized testing of 1st graders to a sample while the state develops alternative assessments.
  • A school-readiness task force in California appointed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig has cautioned against the overuse of standardized tests and called for "drastically altered'' assessment methods. The recommendation is part of a broad plan for an "appropriate, integrated, experiential educational program'' for 4- to 6-year-olds.
  • The Georgia School Boards Association voted in June to oppose the use of formal school-readiness tests, and the staff of the House research committee has held informal meetings with experts to air concerns about kindergarten testing and gather recommendations.

Program Said Paramount

Early-childhood experts see Mr. Boyd's decision in Mississippi as another indication that their position is being accepted.

"People are finally beginning to notice that conventional testing procedures are inconsistent'' with the kind of instructional setting experts consider appropriate for young children, Ms. Egertson said.

Susan Bredekamp, director of the NAEYC's academy of early childhood, said Mississippi's action is consistent with the group's stance that "the instrument should not dictate the program.''

Mr. Boyd's decision may be influential because he serves on an early-education task force convened last year by the National Association of State Boards of Education and chairs a committee studying assessment issues for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The Mississippi chief noted, however, that other factors besides testing have prompted teachers to begin formal instruction in kindergarten. Parents often pressure schools to teach concrete skills, said Mr. Boyd, and some teachers find it "easier to pass out worksheets'' than to use the learning-center approach.

Although early-childhood-education graduates are schooled in the developmental approach, he added, teachers transferred from other grades to kindergarten may find it harder to adapt.

"There will always be teachers who think children are not learning anything if you can't see it on a piece of paper,'' Ms. Davis said.

For that reason, experts say, kindergarten reforms may hinge on a rethinking of teaching practices in the early-elementary grades. The Mississippi education department is considering a recommendation that kindergarten be viewed as part of a "primary unit'' that extends to the 3rd grade, Ms. Correro said.

"Taking tests out will help,'' said David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University and author of Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk. "But what we really need are good developmental programs in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades as well.''

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