Nationally, there is a growing trend towards assessing all incoming kindergartners to ensure that teachers and schools are meeting their academic needs. Currently, 34 states either require some form of these assessments or have a plan for them; using federal grant funds allocated for early childhood education, both Maryland and Ohio have implemented a formal system called the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA) this year, with every teacher assessing every kindergartner individually. The Rhode Island Department of Education has announced that, using Enhanced Assessment Grants, it is in the process of developing Kindergarten Entry Assessments, with statewide field-testing of the assessments to begin in September of 2016.
According to Judith Walker, Early Learning Branch Chief of the Maryland Department of Education, the purpose of these assessments is “to support and advance children’s early learning and academic achievement.” She goes on to say that the data collected will assist teachers in making informed instructional decisions, identify individual students’ needs, provide families with information about their children’s learning and development, and inform preschool teachers and childcare providers. (In fact, there is an Early Learning Assessment developed for early childhood education teachers and childcare providers who are servicing children as young as 36 months.) At least, according to the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Fund guidelines, these tests are not supposed to be used “to prevent children’s entry into kindergarten or as a single measure for high-stakes decisions.”
The KRA tests students’ skills and knowledge in the following areas: social foundations, language and literacy, mathematics, physical well-being and motor development, science, social studies, and the arts. Students are assessed through guided recorded observation (in which teachers observe the students while they are engaged in the classroom), performance tasks (in which teachers give the students a task to complete, either one on one or in small groups), and selected response items (in which students answer questions on a tablet computer). Professional development has been provided to all teachers in Maryland and Ohio through a train the trainer model.
Most kindergarten teachers seem to feel that, although the assessment provides valuable information, the time spent administering it is cumbersome. Some principals provide substitutes so that their teachers can spend a full day doing the assessment, whereas others are expected to conduct the assessment during regular school hours in addition to their usual teaching duties. Crista Kirkendall, who teaches in Prince George’s County, Maryland, found the KRA to be extremely time-consuming, especially in light of the fact that teachers are still expected to complete the district’s regular literacy and math assessments, in addition to the KRA, at the beginning of the year. While the information about students’ prior knowledge and preschool experience is helpful and does inform classroom practices, many kindergarten teachers already feel overburdened in trying to get through the academic curriculum, without spending several hours per child in beginning-of-the-year assessments.
There has been a growing resistance to testing during our students’ early years. Florida kindergarten teacher Susan Bowles made news when she refused to give one of the many assessments mandated by the district. Last month, two first grade teachers in Tulsa, Oklahoma published an open letter expressing their anger at the numerous assessments they were required to subject their students to, causing mental anguish and stress. Joan Almon, co-founder of the Alliance for Childhood, has written an impassioned plea for preschool and kindergarten classrooms that focus more on experiential learning and less on academic standards. She believes that the current expectations for young children have contributed to rising aggressive behaviors, suspensions, and even expulsions for pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Children should be reading proficiently by third grade; there is no evidence to support an emphasis on reading in kindergarten or even first grade. She asserts, “There is nothing developmentally wrong with the children. It is the expectations that are not developmentally appropriate.”
Dr. Walter S. Gilliam, a researcher at the Yale University Child Study Center, found that pre-kindergartners who spent long days in classrooms devoted primarily to academic work with less time for make-believe play were more likely to be suspended from school. Do we really want an early childhood classroom environment that is so focused on academic achievement that it puts undue stress on our children, causing them to act out? Should kindergarten teachers spend the first month or two of school giving assessments, rather than encouraging exploration, facilitating creative play, and guiding appropriate social interactions and pre-literacy behaviors?
I would argue that the answer to these questions is an emphatic, “NO!” Rather than spending millions of dollars developing and administering early childhood assessments, the U.S. Department of Education should instead allocate that money to states that are providing enriching early childhood experiences for children ages one to three years. As I’ve written before, research proves that quality preschool education delivered during these years has the potential to eliminate the achievement gap. Let’s start spending education money in ways that will impact children, and our society, for years to come. Let’s stop looking for deficits in our students and instead help them to become creative, imaginative problem-solvers who love to learn.
This post was originally published at GoLocalProv.