Is Kindergarten Too Young to Test?

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In light of recent headlines around standardized testing for kindergarteners in Oregon and New York, the growing voice of opposition against bubble tests is gaining steam.

According to the New York Daily News, multiple-choice questions and bubble answer sheets left New York's four- and five-year-old students feeling “bewildered,” and some in tears. In one Washington Heights school, the standardized tests were cancelled for kindergarteners after 80 percent of parents decided to opt out.

“My feeling about testing kids as young as four is it’s inhumane,” said PTA co-chairwoman Dao Tran in the New York Daily News article. “I can only see it causing stress.”

Taking multiple-choice tests based on scripted, highly academic curriculum is not only developmentally inappropriate for four, five, and six-year-olds, Randi Weingarten and Nancy Carlsson-Paige have protested in a recent Washington Post op-ed, it defies common sense. “The standardized assessments being administered to first-graders and even kindergartners in New York and elsewhere have put this issue in sharp relief,” they wrote. “What is being required of young children is unreasonable, inappropriate and developmentally unsound.”

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Professor Carlsson-Paige, author of Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids, said the assessments don't take into account the way young brains are designed to learn. “Young children have a really thrilling and complex way of learning, they’ve been learning since the day they were born,” she said. “We know from decades of research that young children learn actively, fully engaging their bodies and all their senses.”

For kindergarten and early grades, she said, a restricted and didactic curriculum inhibits these natural impulses, and leaves little time for how young children learn best: through hands-on experimentation and play.

Even the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which supports the Common Core, issued a statement of concern regarding how both instruction and assessment will be implemented: “Especially critical is maintaining methods of instruction that include a range of approaches—including the use of play as well as both small- and large-group instruction—that are considered to be developmentally appropriate for young children,” they wrote. “Likewise, approaches to assessing young children and the appropriate use of assessment data will increasingly become concerns as the Common Core moves from design to implementation.”

Of course, it’s important for educators to assess children, Carlsson-Paige said, and understand what they know. But assessment for the youngest should look nothing like a bubble test. “I think in the best world, if we had highly educated and informed teachers, they’d be able to observe children, correct their work, and analyze their work,” she said. “They’d have discussion groups with other teachers, they’d note progressions in children’s behavior.” These kinds of assessments, created by the teachers, inform the teacher of what the child needs, and ways they could promote more learning.

But the assessments in New York in particular aren’t meant to understand what the children know, said Carlsson-Paige: They’re meant to grade the teachers. “These tests are going to be used to evaluate the school and the teachers, they’re not tests being given or designed by teachers,” she said. “A high-stakes test tied to evaluation -- you can’t do that without creating a scary school environment, where teachers are forced to implement these standards.”

For now, Carlsson-Paige said plainly that the only thing parents and teachers can do to stem the tide is resist the standards set for the very youngest children, and refuse the tests, as the Washington Heights parents were able to do. “I think that opting out is a really good step, but parents should get together -- people should get together and do it in groups,” she said.

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Bubble tests for kindergarteners may meet short-term goals, but are actually undermining long-term goals. “Even if your short-term goals look good, you’re going to get high test scores if you drill kids all day long,” she said. “But it’s irrelevant to how children learn, how they should be learning, and how you should be understanding their learning in the context of development. It’s not taking into account that young children learn in completely different ways.”

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