Georgia To Test Kindergartners For Promotion

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Georgia will become the first state in the nation to require all school districts to consider kindergartners' scores on a standardized test in deciding whether to promote them to the 1st grade, under a new policy set by the State Board of Education.

Pupil scores on the California Achievement Test will be only one of several factors used in reaching promotion decisions. Nevertheless, the board's action has drawn fire from leading early-childhood-education experts, who argue that testing at such an early age is inappropriate and frequently counterproductive.

Some school districts elsewhere--most notably, the Minneapolis Public Schools--have approved testing requirements for promotion to 1st grade. But prior to the Georgia board's decision, no state had adopted such a plan, experts say.

Under the plan, which was approved Feb. 11 on a vote of 7 to 1, the cat will be administered to the state's 93,000 kindergarten students this spring.

The 90-minute examination--in which students fill in answer squares in response to teachers' questions gauging sound and visual recognition as well as simple number concepts--will be factored in with teacher evaluations to determine which students can proceed to 1st grade.

When test results and teacher recommendations conflict, districts will be required to base promotion decisions on a third, locally designed assessment.

Although the state board and education department have not yet set guidelines for that assessment, officials said it could include other readiness and diagnostic tests, as well as recommendations by professionals and parents.

"We are not trying to set up a gate or a bar," said Werner Rogers, state superintendent of schools. "The goal is to identify as early as possible areas of need that students have and get into the process of remediation."

Students not promoted to 1st grade will be placed in transitional or remedial programs offering extra or individualized instruction.

Mr. Rogers said the testing mandate, which implements a provision of the state's sweeping 1985 school-reform law, is part of a broader effort to spot and address students' learning problems early in order to curb the dropout rate.

Plan Criticized

Early-childhood experts contend, however, that it could unduly boost kindergarten failure rates and result in the mislabeling of children as slow learners.

About 10 percent of the state's kindergartners are expected to score below the cutoff level specified by the board, according to data provided by the education department.

Use of the cat "could get some of these kids channeled off into programs for exceptional children when they don't necessarily need them," said Kathryn P. Jasper, the sole board member to oppose the measure. "I don't want them to fall in those kinds of cracks and be labeled so early."

Ms. Jasper, who taught and supervised early-childhood programs for 40 years and was principal of an elementary school for 10 years, said she supports assessments to identify children's learning styles and needs and to help plan curricula.

But a battery of diagnostic measures would better serve that aim than an achievement test, she said.

Although diagnostic tests could figure in promotion decisions under the board's plan, "I wanted to know specifically what those instruments were going to be before we approved it," she said.

'Psychologically Harmful'

Many early-childhood experts maintain that standardized tests are an unreliable predictor of achievement for young children, who, they say, are unschooled and erratic test-takers.

A group of early-childhood consultants in state departments of education and a California commission on school readiness have recently4drafted statements critical of standardized testing for young children. (See Education Week, Feb. 10, 1988.)

The National Association for the Education of Young Children is expected to release a similar statement this month, according to Susan Bredekamp, director of the n.a.e.y.c.'s national academy of early-childhood programs.

The statement, said Ms. Bredekamp, is based on a "strong body of research" showing that kindergarten retention is "educationally and psychologically harmful" to young children, and does not appear to improve their chances of school success.

Although Georgia officials say8they intend to provide some form of special assistance to failing pupils, rather than require them to repeat a regular kindergarten program, critics contend that channeling young children into such programs would have the same psychological effect.

"It's a matter of semantics," Ms. Bredekamp said. "Regardless of the nomenclature, children are really aware that that's the dummy group."

"Tracking" students into remedial programs in kindergarten can "really stack the deck against them," said Asa G. Hilliard, Fuller E. Calloway professor of urban education at Georgia State University.

Mr. Hilliard, who offered expert testimony in Larry P. v. Riles, a California lawsuit that resulted in a ban on intelligence testing for black students in that state, said such promotion policies typically have their greatest adverse impact on minority children, who are less likely to have attended high-quality preschools.

But the three-tiered assessment leaves sufficient room for professional judgment "to ensure that students who should be promoted are not held back," argued Mr. Rogers.

"We have to do more than just love them and put them in the 1st grade," he said. "We have to have some kind of assessment of their ability to do the work."

"The very best time for a student to have additional time to grow is in the early part of his school career," said Paul Vail, Georgia's associate superintendent for evaluation and personnel development. Experts have indicated, he said, that "if a youngster needs attention, the earlier he gets it, the better off he will be."

Mr. Vail also noted that the cat measures skills taught under the state-mandated kindergarten curriculum, and has been used "historically by local school districts" as a factor in promotion decisions.

Jim F. Smith, chairman of the Georgia board, said the test should be considered no more than a "minimum checkpoint" to measure certain basic skills.

Mr. Smith, who noted that his own son repeated kindergarten and went on to graduate from high school with honors, added that the experience, if handled properly, does not have to stigmatize the child.

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