Special Report

Readiness Assessments Fuel Testing Jitters

By Catherine Gewertz — January 03, 2015 5 min read
Children at a Colorado preschool work on a numbers and counting exercise. Educators face a range of sensitive questions as they seek to weigh how ready students are for kindergarten.
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Has kindergarten become a new pressure point in public education? That’s the worry that’s cropping up more often as states embrace the use of assessments to gauge what children know as they enter the K-12 system.

The growing use of kindergarten-entrance assessments is being fueled by the U.S. Department of Education, which is supporting work in 27 states and the District of Columbia to design new assessments or revise older ones.

A joint project by Maryland and Ohio is among the furthest-along of those projects. The two states placed a premium on crafting a test that draws on activities found in typical kindergarten classrooms. Teachers use observation and scripted activities to look for dozens of skills across six domains of development, including “social foundations” skills such as sharing and taking turns.

The federal Education Department is keenly aware that such assessments can be seen as tools to track children or deny them entrance into kindergarten. In its guidance about the grants, the department emphasized that the tests should be used to “provide information to help close the school-readiness gap at kindergarten entry, to inform instruction in the early-elementary 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.”

But concerns dog the work. Early-childhood advocates worry about the developmental appropriateness of the tests and whether the data they yield will be used to evaluate teachers or to make high-stakes decisions about very young pupils.

Raising Concerns

A handful of highly publicized cases of kindergarten testing have fueled skeptics’ misgivings.

In New York City, for instance, some schools administered bubble-sheet tests to kindergarten pupils in order to produce data for teacher evaluations. The resulting uproar—including reports of children sobbing because they didn’t know how to fill in the bubbles—led state officials to clarify that they don’t require, or approve of, standardized tests for children younger than 3rd grade.

Misuses of kindergarten-entry-test results have led early-childhood groups to raise alarms about the appropriate uses of such tests.

“Use of kindergarten-readiness assessments as a means of screening children into or out of kindergarten is inconsistent with generally accepted best practices,” Kyle L. Snow, the director of the Center for Applied Research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington, wrote in a 2011 report.

As testing grows in K-12, early-childhood educators have noted that academic expectations are increasing for the youngest students.

University of Virginia researchers Daphna Bassok and Anna Rorem found that between 1998 and 2006, the proportion of kindergarten teachers who believed that their pupils should learn to read soared, from 31 percent to 65 percent, and the time they spent on literacy rose by 25 percent.

Some sectors of the early-childhood community welcome the focus on assessing youngsters as they enter kindergarten, arguing that the results can be invaluable in tailoring instruction to meet children’s varied needs. But others argue that schools have no business testing the youngest pupils.

It’s not just the rise in kindergarten-entry assessment that’s worrisome; it’s the underlying academic-content expectations, said Joan Almon, the director of programs for the Alliance for Childhood, based in New York City. She noted that the Common Core State Standards ask kindergartners to “read emergent-reader texts with purpose and understanding,” a goal that will elude many 5-year-olds, especially if attempted without teacher support.

Energy Misdirected

The expanding use of kindergarten-readiness tests is a troubling sign that policymakers are putting energy into the wrong areas, said Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor emerita in early childhood at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass.

“Whether it’s being done right begs the question of why it’s being done in such excess,” she said. “We should be pouring resources into early-childhood programs that desperately need investment.”

Under very specific circumstances, Ms. Carlsson-Paige said, well-crafted kindergarten-entry tests can be useful to help teachers hone observational skills and differentiate instruction. But that’s the case “only if the test is in the hands of the teacher, as a tool for teacher practice, and no one else,” she said.

See Also

Related story: Pressures Rise as Pace of Kindergarten Increases

Mr. Snow of the NAEYC said there are key factors to watch for to ensure that kindergarten-readiness assessments are designed and used appropriately. Children that young should never be given bubble sheets, he said; tests should be given “in the context of what kids are doing, and look like the types of things they’d be doing anyway in a kindergarten setting.”

Tests should not be given by an outsider, but by the teacher, once pupils have spent enough time to develop a relationship with the teacher, Mr. Snow said.

One of the challenges of good kindergarten-readiness assessments is that they must reflect the day-to-day variations in young children’s skills, and in their ability to demonstrate them, Mr. Snow said. They must also be designed to “catch a wide variety of skills, outside the normative range,” because 5-year-olds come to school at wildly different points developmentally. Kindergarten-entry assessments shouldn’t be an endpoint, but a baseline, he said, with ongoing assessment all year long to help the teacher adjust instruction.

Those guidelines shaped North Carolina’s thinking as it created a new test, now being piloted, with federal early-learning grants. Previously, districts used a variety of “commercial and homegrown” products to assess kindergartners’ skills, and most were too focused only on mathematics and literacy, said John Pruette, who oversees early learning for the state education department.

With the new assessment, teachers spend two months observing and interacting with their pupils and recording information about the children’s health, their physical and social-emotional development, and their “approach to learning,” as well as their math and literacy skills, he said. The state sees that data-gathering as the first in a series of activities to inform instruction in grades K-3.

North Carolina will also use the aggregate profile generated by the kindergarten assessments to provide better professional development for teachers and better support for programs for children from birth to age 5, he said.

The debate about how kindergarten data are used “gets back to a fear people have, and that’s, ‘Are you going to use this to defund programs?’ That’s not the intent at all,” Mr. Pruette said. “This is about how you support and rise up the quality of what’s happening.”

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