Standardized testing now in kindergarten?
So let’s get this straight. We hire kindergarten teachers because they are among the most compassionate and kind people God put on this earth. We ask them to guide our children along a path toward confidence and an authentic love of learning. If we boil it down to two things, don’t we all want our kindergarteners to be confident and love learning when they start school?
I’m all for accountability. I want high standards just like any other school administrator out there. However, I’m not sure how our children become confident students who love learning if teachers have to spend more and more of their time administering tests written with pre-defined, one-size fits all standards. If schools were run like a business, someone by now should have said, “Wait a minute, what impact can this high stakes testing culture have on the development of our youngest students?”
Let me start with a story about child development. The story is from a book I read in college which had a profound impact on both my philosophy of education and my eventual career path. The story is about an emotionally crippled boy from a wealthy home with highly educated parents. Despite feeling their child had untapped intellectual capacity, his school suggested he may have an emotional or cognitive disorder.
The boy’s parents took him to see a clinical psychologist. They told her she was their last hope. Over the course of a year, the psychologist documented her work with the boy in play therapy. She used a form of therapy known as person-centered, which allowed the boy to focus on his interests. Person-centered therapy in the 60’s formed part of the foundation of what would eventually become known as student-centered education today.
Throughout the course of their work, the boy began to open up. As the therapist provided a nurturing environment and showed genuine interest in the boy, he made considerable strides in his ability to cope with emotions and interact socially with his peers and family. At the end of therapy, the boy was tested, and his IQ was 168. The book, Dibs in Search of Self, has become required reading in many counselor training programs.
We all develop differently and at different rates. One thing we all have in common I believe, without a doubt, is that God created us all with a purpose and each child is brilliantly made. I also believe standardization and labelling can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy that can distract kids from their calling.
While the aim of standardized tests is noble, if the outcome leads to a label, or diminishes the confidence of a child, is a 5% improvement in reading comprehension scores by third grade worth the cost?
There was a great study that did not get enough attention almost a century ago in the fields of education and psychology. Dr. Elizabeth Hurlock, in 1925, wondered what would happen if fourth and sixth graders in the same math class received different feedback on their work. One group was called by name and praised for good work and the other was criticized for poor work.
At first, both groups showed similar performance on math tests. Over time, however, there was a major change. The group who was criticized showed a major decline in grades while the group who was praised experienced major improvement.
While the students in both groups were equal ability levels, the praised group improved 71 percent while the group who was criticized improved only 19 percent.
Kindergarten teachers are masters of praise. Praise is the biggest tool in their teacher tool kits. What opportunities do standardized tests allow kindergarten teachers to praise their children? “Great job, Johnny! Way to sit still and fill in the bubbles. You have left very little white space.” Pardon my sarcasm, but let’s be realistic. Are we really asking kindergarten teachers to spend more and more time testing their children because third graders are not reading on grade level?
The crux of my argument is that while we are trying to fix problems, we need to be careful that we are not creating new ones. Standardized tests exist, in part, to identify problem areas and bring up low scores. Whenever we introduce standardization, we end up with regression toward the mean. When we pull the bottom up, we pull the top down. Not only do intellectually curious kids get bored, I believe we stomp out individuality, ignore the idiosyncrasies that make kids unique, and unintentionally promote conformity.
As our schools today are built around core curriculum, and now a common core curriculum, we force students to learn stuff to make our schools look better. Where is there room for the interests and God-given talents of a child to be nurtured? Please don’t do this to our 4 and 5 year olds. Wait until they are strong enough emotionally to ignore their hopes and dreams if we have to have our standardized test scores in math match those of India and China.
It has always been the ingenuity of the American people that made our nation great. Let’s not sacrifice the imagination of our children on the altar of higher math and reading scores.
There is hope.
This past week I witnessed the power of an individual cause people to stop and think. Susan Bowles in Gainesville Florida, at the risk of being fired, refused to administer Florida’s new FAIR test to her kindergarteners. She took an oath as a teacher to do what was best for her children. She took a stand.
The Washington Post picked up the story and her superintendent supported her. Within less than a week the Florida Commissioner of Education backed off and decided not to require FAIR testing.
Thank you, Mrs. Bowles. Thank you to the superintendent who supported the courage of a teacher. You all give me hope for the future.
Teachers and parents, you have a voice.
Next week, South Carolina teachers will head off to training for the state’s new test for kindergartners. Please think deeply about how this will impact your students – our children.
Perhaps this test will provide benefits and not interfere with the intrinsic motivation of children. I certainly hope not. However, teachers please remember that Mrs. Bowles taught us a very valuable lesson. You can make a difference. At the end of the day it is you who carry the power to impact the future of our children.
I will never forget the moment I decided to pursue education. I had just moved to a new school and sat with my mother in the assistant principal’s office. The meeting lasted less than 5 minutes. He looked at some standardized tests in my file, looked up at me, and without asking me a single question decided to place me in the C level classes. My new school tracked children in levels A through C and no, the C level classes were not the fast track!
After about a week and a half my English teacher approached me and asked me what I was doing in her class. She said I needed to be in the A level. She stood up to the administration and advocated for me.
The experience had a profound impact on my life. I will never forget the feeling I had. Something didn’t sit right about it and I remember thinking there must be a better way to run a school. At that moment God planted the seed in my heart to become an educator.
I am so grateful for the men and women who teach our children. Yours is the greatest calling. Please learn from Mrs. Bowles who had the courage to stand up to ambitious administrators who sometimes lose sight of our children along the path of progress.
Our four and five year olds can’t advocate for themselves yet. They need you.
You have a voice. You can make a difference.