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Georgia Developing New Kindergarten Assessment

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Atlanta--Two years ago, Georgia drew criticism from early-childhood experts for mandating that kindergartners take a standardized paper-and-pencil test before entering 1st grade.

In recent months, however, state education officials have been working to develop a new assessment program that they hope will not only appease their critics but also foster more "developmentally appropriate'' kindergarten classes.

"The glory of this instrument is that it is an instructional tool, not just for children but for the adults who administer it," said Diane Cousineau, a legislative program analyst with the House research committee.

Because the procedure assesses children according to developmental milestones, "just doing it shows you what a developmental unit should look like if you've never had one," she said. "It's delightfully subversive."

The issue of whether and how to assess kindergartners' skills--and how to address their developmental differences--was hotly debated here this month at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

At a symposium on "testing, tracking, and timing," n.a.e.y.c. leaders and panelists urged schools to cut down on standardized testing and retention in the early grades. Georgia's former testing mandate, they argued, was a "bad policy decision."

"It's very fitting that this discussion take place in Atlanta, because Georgia placed itself in the center of a controversy two years ago'' by requiring that kindergartners' California Achievement Test scores be weighed in promotion decisions, said Susan Bredekamp, the group's director of professional development.

She and others are quick to note, however, that State Superintendent of Schools Werner Rogers and the board of education agreed last spring to drop the cat and replace it with a more versatile, less formal assessment program. (See Education Week, March 15, 1989.)

"This is an example of how good evidence has changed the way policymakers act," said Harriet Egertson, an early-childhood specialist with the Nebraska education department.

Under Georgia's new assessment plan, which is in the final stages of development, teachers will be trained to assess pupils by asking them to perform specific activities and by maintaining observation checklists.

The assessment will gauge pupils' mathematical/logical and communicative skills, as well as their personal, social, and physical development.

Teachers may conduct assessment activities--which range from observing how children handle books to asking them to arrange toys in a sequence--at different times for different children, providing four opportunities for the child to demonstrate a skill. They must complete observation checklists for each child once every three months.

"Children are not expected to be successful for something they are not prepared for," said Sharon Meinhardt, early-childhood-education coordinator for the state department.

Teachers are to use the assessment information as "only one4source"--along with anecdotal records, other classwork, and parental input--in determining whether children are ready to move to 1st grade. "Decisions to retain must be justified," Ms. Meinhart said, adding that social, personal, and physical factors are not sufficient to justify retention.

The assesments, coupled with a new state program that gives districts grants to offer more hands-on learning for at-risk kindergartners and 1st graders, "have the potential to change the face of teaching" in the state, Ms. Cousineau said. (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1989.)

Hollis Q. Lathem, chairman of the state board, said the panel is likely to approve the assessment package once it is completed. Because it meets the statutory requirement for a 1st-grade readiness assessment, the program does not need approval by the legislature.

But Ms. Cousineau noted that lawmakers could propose changes once implementation begins.

She also suggested that schools accustomed to "routinely retaining" large numbers of pupils may challenge the new approach.

While applauding the state for its willingness to change, early-childhood experts continue to express doubts about whether assessments should be used in gauging 1st-grade readiness. "I would raise questions about any procedure that would result in a recommendation for retention," Ms. Egertson said.

Ms. Bredekamp voiced similar reservations, but added that the state has a "unique opportunity to be a testing ground" for a "developmentally appropriate kindergarten assessment."

"Unfortunately, they are being forced to change in an environment that is going to have such great public scrutiny," Ms. Bredekamp said. "They need to be given time without people screaming down their necks that it isn't perfect the first time."

Georgia is not the only state to back down on a testing program after concerns were raised about its appropriateness for young children. Monty Neill of the advocacy group FairTest noted at the conference that North Carolina, Mississippi, Arizona, and Texas also have dropped or altered testing requirements for children in the early grades.

Several panelists at the testing symposium stressed the need to offer curricular settings that can accommodate children of different maturity levels rather than segregating those who are less mature.

But some participants defended the use of tests for placing children in "transition" classes that provide an extra year before the 1st or 2nd grade.

The naeyc should "place more emphasis on what good transition classrooms can do for kids," said Anthony Coletta, a professor of early-childhood eduation at William Paterson College in Wayne, N.J.

Others cited examples in which programs that grouped pupils according to their "developmental age" benefited children and cut down on the need for remediation.

Ms. Bredekamp maintained, however, that using such anecdotes to justify testing and tracking is "a cognitive leap that is bad policy."

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