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Minneapolis Schools Suspend High-Stakes Kindergarten Testing

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Kindergartners will not have to face a familiar rite of passage in Minneapolis this spring: a 20-minute test that could determine whether they enter the 1st grade.

The so-called "benchmark test'' was among the first and most widely publicized districtwide efforts to assess a child's readiness for the 1st grade.

Launched in 1984 by the former superintendent of the Minneapolis schools, Richard Green, the test was part of a strategy to reduce the incidence of "social promotion'' and to hold schools accountable for results by testing students' "minimum competencies'' at various grade levels.

In recent years, however, the test had drawn increasing scrutiny from educators who questioned not only the competencies it measured, but also the wisdom of retaining young children on the basis of test results.

Capping a debate that had been simmmering for several years, the Minneapolis school board voted 6 to 1 last month to suspend the test for at least two years while the district pilots an ambitious set of alternative-assessment strategies.

Evaluators last week began administering a three-stage assessment that will profile a sample of children's capacities in key areas of development by asking them to manipulate and interpret objects, books, and stories. Since September, large numbers of kindergarten teachers also have been compiling portfolios of student work and using new rating scales to track children's cognitive, personal, and social development.

The suspension of the benchmark test, school officials emphasize, marks a shift not only in the district's kindergarten-assessment strategy, but also in its approach to early-childhood education and to testing children of all ages.

Moving away from the test, noted Lary Johnson, the district's administrator of evaluation and testing, signals "a real change in philosophy in the district, not only away from retention, but ... regarding how children learn and what they should be learning.''

The district has instituted a new kindergarten curriculum philosophy and is piloting new "learner outcomes'' for K-3 children. It has also started using report cards that place more emphasis on learning approaches and social skills, and last year Minneapolis schools began working with parents to develop individual learning plans for young children.

The changes all stress "developmentally appropriate'' teaching approaches that foster personal, social, physical, and esthetic development as well as cognitive skills, and encourage hands-on learning and exploration.

Tapping funds from a local levy referendum, the district has also expanded its staff training to help teachers master such methods and reduced class size in the early grades.

At the same time, it is experimenting on a smaller scale with more "outcome based'' assessments to gauge the language and problem-solving skills of elementary-school pupils.

"I've been in the district for 25 years, and I've never felt more energized about what's happening,'' said Maureen Bazinet, a principal in the district who helped lead a grassroots movement of educators who sought changes in the testing and teaching of young children.

'Outcry' Over Test

The changes in Minneapolis are consistent with advice by national experts--and moves by several states in recent years--to avoid "high stakes'' testing in the early years.

Robert J. Ferrera, who took over as school superintendent in 1988, says input from teachers and "an abundance of recent research'' persuaded him to change course.

"The current research on early-childhood development clearly indicates that the old way of measuring whether a child is ready to move on to a grade is a dated approach,'' he said. "If we don't use what we're learning about learning, it's hard to call ourselves an educational institution.''

Such data--some of which are based on Minneapolis pupils--boded ill not only for retention, district officials say, but also for the practice of placing kindergartners deemed unready for 1st grade in special "transition'' classes to help hone their skills. A recent federal study showed that practice is still prevalent across the nation. (See Education Week, April 22, 1992.)

Minneapolis children who initially failed the benchmark test attended regular half-day kindergarten classes again, but also spent a half-day in transition classes.

A district study of 300 children who failed the benchmark test the first year it was given showed that the children placed in such classes performed better than average on the test the second year.

But their scores on benchmark and other standardized tests dropped in the 1st grade and again in the 2nd grade, bringing them "substantially below grade level or the typical population,'' Mr. Johnson, the administrator of evaluation and testing, said.

"The gains they had for that one year did not seem to hold up,'' he added.

Such data, coupled with budget constraints and increasing opposition from educators, led the district to drop the transition classes about three years ago.

Also about three years ago, Ms. Bazinet noted, teachers and principals concerned about the retention and transition practices banded together to draft recommendations suggesting "major revisions'' in testing and in the K-3 curriculum. The proposals, she said, focused on "having schools be ready for children'' by adopting practices that fit younger pupils' varied developmental needs.

The impetus, she said, was "an outcry'' over the annual benchmark-testing ritual. Principals, she said, were asking, "'Why are we letting this happen? We know this is not a sound practice.'''

The group approached the superintendent and his cabinet, Ms. Bazinet recalled, and "within 10 to 12 months all the recommendations had been acted on.''

Reflects New Approach

While the kindergarten benchmark test was initially used as the main factor in retention decisions, over time the district increasingly encouraged schools to factor in teacher judgments and other criteria.

In the meantime, Mr. Johnson noted, many schools have moved away from kindergarten retention.

District data show that, while the share of kindergartners failing the test rose from 11 percent in 1984 to 16 percent in 1991, the number of students retained fell from 330 to 92.

But the best reason for dropping the test, said Jan Witthuhn the district's associate superintendent for research and development, was "because it reflected the old curriculum and not [our] newer approach.''

"The old benchmarks were not measuring the things we wanted to teach,'' added Mr. Johnson, who worked with principals and teachers to develop assessments "more in line'' with the newer philosophy.

While the benchmark test involved counting and identifying letters and colors, the new "kindergarten exit assessment'' entails sorting and categorizing objects, showing where a book starts or how print runs down a page, and retelling a story in sequence.

The assessment is being given to a random sample of about 670 of the district's 4,000 kindergartners.

While the district will still give other national standardized tests and has not ruled out kindergarten retention, its new policy directs that parents, teachers, and principals should make such decisions jointly.

More or Less Accountable?

District officials say they expect the benchmark test will be permanently scrapped, but they acknowledge that they must first persuade the public that the new system works. During the two-year suspension period approved by the board, parents will be surveyed for their reaction.

Ann Berget, the one school-board member who opposed the change in policy, said she worries that "we create a conflict for ourselves when we create very high expectations ... but use methods of assessment that are extremely difficult to communicate to the general public in a way that gives them a clear picture of what's going on with our kids.''

She also complained that the new measures are "labor intensive'' and costly; do not tell enough about individual children, classes, or schools; are not related to national or local norms; and could reflect "an individual teacher's criteria, which may be excellent or may be wanting.''

"We need assessments that are sufficiently authentic in terms of representing students' abilities, but at the same time sufficiently cost-effective and legitimately understood by people who need to know how students are performing,'' she said.

Superintendent Ferrera acknowledged that the shift would "require an education on the part of lawmakers, some of whom prefer to look at a single score.''

But he argued that the new, outcome-based assessments--which the district expects to phase in within five years for children through the adolescent years--will make the district "more accountable than we ever were.''

When Mr. Green first launched the tests, David Tilsen, the chairman of the school board, said, "It was among the most progressive thinking in the country.''

"I don't see this as a rejection of what we did then,'' he added, "but as learning from it and moving on.''

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