Fri, Sep 28, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Five-year-olds put to the test as kindergarten exams gain steam

In today’s data-driven world, at least 25 US states now require at least one formal assessment during kindergarten

By Stephanie Simon  /  Reuters

Illustration: Mountain People

With school in full swing across the US, the littlest students are getting used to the blocks table and the dress-up corner — and that staple of US public education, the standardized test.

A national push to make public schools more rigorous and hold teachers more accountable has led to a vast expansion of testing in kindergarten. And more exams are on the way, including a test meant to determine whether five-year-olds are on track to succeed in college and career.

Paul Weeks, a vice president at test developer ACT Inc, says he knows that particular assessment sounds a bit nutty, especially since many kindergarteners aspire to careers as superheroes.

“What skills do you need for that, right? Flying is good. X-ray vision?” he said, laughing.

However, ACT will soon roll out college and career-readiness exams for kids aged eight through 18 and Weeks said developing similar tests for younger ages is “high on our agenda.”

Asking kids to predict the ending of a story or to suggest a different ending, for instance, can identify the critical thinking skills that employers prize, he said.

“There are skills that we’ve identified as essential for college and career success, and you can back them down in a grade-appropriate manner,” Weeks said. “Even in the early grades, you can find students who may be at risk.”

At least 25 states now mandate at least one formal assessment during kindergarten. Many local school districts require their own tests as well, starting just a few weeks into the academic year.

The proliferation of exams for five-year-olds has sparked a fierce debate that echoes a broader national divide over how much standardized testing is appropriate in public schools.

Advocates say it is vital to test early and often because too many kids fall irretrievably behind in their first years of schooling. The most recent national exams for fourth graders found just 34 percent proficient in reading and 40 percent proficient in math.

Opponents counter that testing puts undue stress on five and six-year-olds and cuts into the time they should be spending playing, singing and learning social skills. They also contend that most tests for kindergarteners are unreliable because the children have short attention spans and often find it difficult to demonstrate skills on demand.

‘SHOULD KNOW BETTER’

Formal tests give a narrow picture of a child’s ability, said Samuel Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in Chicago focused on child development. He urges teachers instead to assess young children by observing them over time, recording skills and deficits and comparing those to benchmarks.

However, Meisels fears such observational tests will not seem objective or precise enough in today’s data-driven world; he says he too often sees them pushed aside in favor of more formal assessments.

“I am worried, yes,” he said. “We should know better.”

Kari Knutson, a veteran kindergarten teacher in Minnesota, has seen the shifting attitude toward testing play out in her classroom.

During her first two decades of teaching, Knutson rarely, if ever, gave formal tests; kindergarten was about learning through play, music, art and physical activity.

These days, though, her district mandates a long list of assessments.

Knutson started the year by quizzing each of her 23 students on the alphabet and phonics, through a 111-question oral exam. Last week, she brought the kids to the computer lab for another literacy test. Each kindergartener wore headphones and listened to questions while a menu of possible answers flashed on the screen. They were supposed to respond by clicking on the correct answer, though not all could maneuver the mouse and some gave up in frustration, Knutson said.

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