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'How Is My Child Doing?'

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One of the most destructive things a parent can do is compare one child with another. "Your brother plays the piano so much better than you do.'' "Your sister never had any trouble learning long division.'' "Why don't you get good grades, like your friend Alison?'' Yet our system of education relentlessly compares one student with another, using scores on standardized, norm-referenced achievement tests as if they were infallible indicators of children's potential.

In early childhood and the primary grades particularly, this practice does more harm than good. The results of readiness tests, often no more accurate than a coin toss, convince parents to separate children from their peers and keep them in preschool an extra year. Achievement-test scores support ill-informed decisions to retain record numbers of children and to select who will receive the most enriched education at a stage in life when children have barely begun to show what they can do. Narrow, state-mandated, skill-oriented tests in 3rd and 4th grade have also helped trigger a downward academic spiral, distorting the way children learn and teachers teach.

The practice of assessing children at the outset of formal schooling is generally described as readiness testing. Unfortunately, "readiness'' is a term that has been drained of meaning. Children are often described as "ready'' or "not ready,'' as if readiness were an ability or biological entity. Although it undoubtedly reflects higher-order cortical activity, readiness is neither a gene, a chromosome, nor any other biological "thing.''

"Readiness'' is also appended to programs, classes, tests, and curricula, leading some commentators to suggest that readiness refers to how well-prepared children are for formal education. This begs the question of how to define the formal education for which children are to be ready. The first of the six national education goals was not intended to suggest that all children should start school in readiness classes, tested by readiness tests, and taught using readiness curricula and materials. It says simply that all children should be ready to learn when they come to school.

In reality, the concept of readiness is bi-directional. It focuses both on children's current skills, knowledge, and abilities, and on the conditions of the environment in which children are reared and taught. Since different children are prepared for different experiences, and different children respond differentially to apparently similar inputs, readiness is a relative term. It can be applied to individual children, but it is not something in the child or in the curriculum. It is a product of the interaction of children's prior experiences, their genetic endowment, their maturational status, and the whole range of environmental and cultural experiences that they encounter.

This interactional perspective has important implications for how we assess children at the outset of formal schooling. Clearly, assessment during this period should not be restricted to unidimensional "snapshots'' of children's responses to highly circumscribed test situations. It's time to replace conventional group-administered tests and report cards with new ways of documenting children's accomplishments that do not unfairly compare or stigmatize children, damage their motivation, or limit our perspective on what children can do. We need to rethink our assessments so they inform us about what children are really learning, rather than whether they can respond to out-of-context questions on multiple-choice tests that generally treat children as passive respondents.

An alternative approach to assessment that potentially reflects this interactive perspective--performance assessment--is gaining widespread attention. It enables students to demonstrate their knowledge or skills through solving problems, doing mathematical computations, writing journal entries or essays, conducting experiments, presenting oral reports, or assembling a portfolio of representative work. One approach to performance assessment for young children, developed at the University of Michigan school of education, is the Work Sampling System, which is now being used with more than 6,000 preschool-grade 3 children across the nation (see Education Week, Jan. 20, 1993).

Work Sampling exemplifies the belief that observing and systematically documenting what children can actually do is the best way to say how they are doing. At conference time, instead of sitting down with the parent to go over mysterious test scores, or undefined and inconsistently applied O's, S's, or D's on the report card, teachers, parents, and children review a summary report prepared by the teacher, a report that is illustrated by a portfolio of the child's work and that is substantiated by a detailed checklist of the child's skills, knowledge, and behaviors.

Using these materials, the teacher is able to offer insights into how children take in information and express what's been learned across the universe of classroom activity. The Work Sampling System is thus a curriculum-embedded assessment rather than a set of on-demand performance tasks that offer little more than a repackaging of old measurement techniques in new methodological garb. When performance data are collected systematically by classroom teachers in the process of their teaching, these assessments reflect teachers' ways of knowing and children's ways of behaving. Taken together, the summary reports, portfolios, and developmental checklists of a performanceassessment like the Work Sampling System create a detailed profile of a child's individual progress in developing skills, acquiring knowledge, and mastering important behaviors. This is what we are looking for in any assessment, and particularly, in assessments of children at the outset of school.

Although most parents know it's unhelpful to compare brothers and sisters at home, it may take a while for them to give up comparing their children with schoolmates using percentile scores or rankings on conventional tests. It may take even longer for parents and teachers to develop confidence that these new kinds of performance assessments are not only fair and informative, but also at least as objective and reliable as standard, paper-and-pencil, fill-in-the-bubble tests.

But once they do, parents, teachers, and administrators are likely to agree that the best possible answer to the question "How is my child doing in school?'' is not a number or a letter. It's a detailed description, complete with samples of what a child is actually doing. No other approach to assessment can so clearly communicate children's readiness for learning and teachers' readiness for teaching. Now the question is, Are we ready to change?

Samuel J. Meisels is the associate dean for research and a professor of education at the University of Michigan school of education.

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