Kindergarten-Readiness Tests Gain Ground

By Catherine Gewertz — October 07, 2014 9 min read
Amy Knight, a kindergarten teacher at Parr's Ridge Elementary School in Mount Airy, Md., instructs 5-year-old Zavier Abu-Shaaban on a math assessment task during morning arrival.
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For 20 kindergartners at Parr’s Ridge Elementary School, the morning is packed with singing and dancing, playing an alphabet game with sticks, and cutting big oval shapes out of paper. And while these are typical classroom activities, many also double as something else: parts of an assessment.

These bouncy, sneakered children are part of a leading-edge project in the testing world to figure out how to assess the youngest students in ways that welcome their playful energy and their varied paths of development, and then use the results to shape instruction. All 3,500 kindergarten teachers in Maryland are using a new readiness assessment this year that rests on teachers’ observations of children’s work and play to build a detailed picture of what they need as they begin the school year.

What’s happening here reflects a national surge of interest in better sizing up and serving children as they enter the K-12 school system. Parr’s Ridge teacher Amy Knight is one of tens of thousands of teachers who are learning new ways of merging assessment with observation and instruction.

On a mid-September morning, she leads her class in singing alphabet and rhyming songs. Then the children split up into small groups; some curl up on big blue cushions with books, while others sit at tables, working on a cut-and-paste word-rhyming activity. Ms. Knight gathers five children around her at a table.

She gives each one a paper that shows two big horizontal ovals. In one oval, she asks them to write their names. In the other, Ms. Knight asks the children to write the word “toy,” which is displayed on the board nearby. Then they have to cut out both ovals. The teacher watches carefully as the students grasp pencils and draw letters, some sure and others halting. She notices the jagged cutouts on some papers, the smooth ones on others. On a clipboard, she has a detailed rubric, and she marks her observations of the children’s fine-motor and early-writing skills: “not yet evident,” “in progress,” or “proficient.”

Then it’s time for the next activity: a game called “Zap!” From a cup full of wide popsicle sticks with letters written on the tips, each child chooses a stick and says the name and sound of the letter out loud. They laugh, clap, and wiggle in their seats as the cup comes around again and again. Some say the letters and sounds like proud proclamations; others hesitate, or mix up a “b” with a “d.”

Again, Ms. Knight makes notes on her rubric. She’s watching the students’ preliminary grasp of letters and sounds, but also noticing how they manage taking turns.

Nearly one-third of the skills she’s been trained to look for are in the domain of “social foundations,” which includes skills such as expressing concern for others, following multi-step directions, and working cooperatively. Ms. Knight is keeping an eye out for skills and behaviors in five other domains, too: language and literacy, mathematics, science, social studies, and physical well-being and motor development.

She draws her information from many moments of the day, including whole-group activities, small-group work, and time she spends one-on-one with the children. Some observations are spontaneous; most flow from carefully planned and scripted activities. Working with children one at a time, for instance, the teacher might ask a child to look at several pictures of flower pots and point to the one with the most flowers in it.

Ms. Knight assesses a small group of students on some of their social foundations skills while the rest of the class works on an independent assignment.

Tailoring Instruction

As the weeks go by, the grid on Ms. Knight’s clipboard fills up, with every skill strand in all six domains observed and recorded for all 20 children. The information will be aggregated in a database that teachers and administrators can use to tailor instruction.

By mid-September, for instance, Ms. Knight already knows that some of her charges need help learning to work scissors and hold pencils. She’s formulating plans to blend cutting and writing activities into morning arrival time. She will also use what she’s learned to give parents a fuller picture of their children’s needs and growing skills.

“You have to pick and be strategic, but you can accumulate a lot of tidbits day to day,” Ms. Knight says while the children play at recess. “I like the process. It does feel like a lot to do, but it’s very clear and it gives me a lot of valuable information.”

Much of the activity on kindergarten-readiness tests has flowed from the priority that the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama has placed on improving early-childhood education. Two programs have fueled work in this area: $1 billion awarded to 20 states in the Early Learning Challenge Grants program, which supports improving preschool access and programming, and designing better assessments for young children; and $15 million awarded to 17 states in the Enhanced Assessment Grants program, which focuses more tightly on assessment.

Using funds they won in both programs, Maryland and Ohio teamed up to build a new kindergarten-readiness assessment for both states to use this school year. They hired San Francisco-based WestEd to design the test; the Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s Center for Technology in Education created the teacher-training component.

Like 24 other states, Ohio and Maryland already required readiness tests at the beginning of kindergarten, but they sought the federal money to improve their tools. Maryland’s previous test helped inform the state department of education’s outlook on its preschool programs. It was also meant to inform kindergarten teaching, but many teachers felt its classroom value was limited.

“It was a waste of time,” said Ms. Knight, who has taught for seven years at Parr’s Ridge, a K-2 school of 450 students in central Maryland. She would spend hours gathering data for that test, but it yielded only broad-brush information, nothing granular enough to be useful to her or to parents, she said.

Integrated and Interactive

Kindergartner Zavier Abu-Shaaban works through problems on the KRA math assessment in teacher Amy Knight's classroom at Parr's Ridge Elementary School in Mount Airy, Md.

Experts say that Maryland’s new kindergarten assessment showcases key features of age-appropriateness for young children. “It’s right in the middle of the plate when it comes to good practice” in early-childhood assessment, said Kyle L. Snow, who has studied the issue as a senior scholar at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

One important element of the test is that it assesses students as they engage in normal classroom activities, he said. Another is that it is given by their teacher, once pupils have had enough time to establish a relationship with her, he said. It’s also interactive, rather than simply requiring children to write answers on a sheet of questions. The fact that the data are intended to inform instruction—rather than support high-stakes decisions about students or teachers—is crucial as well, Mr. Snow said.

The use of kindergarten-readiness tests has sparked concern in some quarters, especially since objections to the types and amounts of standardized testing in schools have accelerated across the country. Some parents and early-childhood educators fear that policymakers will disregard the longstanding advice of experts, and use information from the tests to inform teachers’ evaluations, and even to steer the least-ready children into kindergarten alternatives.

‘Reason to Be Cautious’

Libby Doggett, who oversees the Early Learning Challenge Grant program as the deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning at the U.S. Department of Education, said the department’s guidance incorporates the early-childhood field’s cautionary notes about age-appropriate testing.

The guidance says such tests should be used to “provide information to help close the school readiness gap at kindergarten entry, to inform instruction in the early elementary school grades, and to notify parents about their children’s status and involve them in decisions about their children’s education. [They] should not be used to prevent children’s entry into kindergarten or as a single measure for high-stakes decisions.”

Ms. Doggett said department officials are “aware that people are fed up with testing,” and acknowledged that there is “reason to be cautious” when setting out to design kindergarten-readiness assessments.

“We want to make sure people don’t get scared because you use the word ‘assessment.’ What we’re talking about is measuring progress by being a keen observer, and helping teachers know where their kids are,” she said. “We always want to make sure [kindergarten entrance tests] are properly used. We never want children or programs punished.”

Even as federal funding speeds development of new tools, however, some experts are reserving judgment about their quality. For Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek, a Temple University psychology professor who focuses on early-childhood learning, even the better tests for young children focus too much on yielding information about the results—rather than the process—of learning.

“People in my field are nervous as heck,” she said. “My fear is that we aren’t testing the right stuff.”

Ms. Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues are currently piloting kindergarten-readiness tests designed to provide that deeper kind of information. Instead of simply asking children to identify shapes, she said, the tests display shapes in various colors and sizes, in two and three dimensions, rotated to varying positions. The teacher then asks questions that plumb students’ grasp of what they saw. “That’s really unpacking what we mean by spatial ability,” said Ms. Hirsh-Pasek. “A teacher can really get a sense of where this kid is coming from in skills that are precursors to math ability all the way up the grades.”

Skepticism about tests for young children surfaced almost immediately at an August training session designed to acquaint Amy Knight and her colleagues with Maryland’s new assessment. Teachers told stories of day-care centers that administered spelling tests to 4-year-olds or expected children to recognize words by sight. Scanning the lists of skills they’d be looking for in their students, some teachers sounded worried.

“A lot of this is what we teach in kindergarten. How can we expect them to know this stuff when they’re coming in?” asked one teacher, pointing to a place on the skills sheet that said, “Count the number sequence to 20.”

Janet Bubnash, one of the session trainers, reassured the teachers that the students are not expected to demonstrate all the skills listed. The test was deliberately designed to reflect a wide range of skills, since young children master things at very different points in their development, she said. The point of the test is to get a snapshot of readiness “from a whole-child perspective, to see where they are,” said co-trainer Amber Chenoweth.

By the end of the training session, Ms. Knight felt excited. “Documenting all of this will be a challenge,” she said. “But it seems really good. I think my students and their parents will benefit from this.”

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Coverage of “deeper learning” that will prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Kindergarten-Readiness Tests Gain Ground


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