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* At least 25 states mandate kindergarten assessment
* Critics worry testing 5-year-olds is unreliable
* Some kids face hour-long multiple choice test
* NY asks: How many ways can you divide 6 books on 2
Sept 25 (Reuters) - With school in full swing across the
United States, the littlest students are getting used to the
blocks table and the dress-up corner - and that staple of
American 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 5-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.
But ACT will soon roll out college- and career-readiness
exams for kids age 8 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's 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 5- and
6-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.
'WE 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.
But Meisels fears such observational tests won't 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
"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
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
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.
This week, it's on to math - and a seven-page,
pencil-and-paper test. "It's supposed to show them what they'll
be learning in first grade," Knutson said. "Like they really
In her view, the kids are far too young to tackle formal
exams, especially in their first weeks of what is for many their
first school experience. "Half of them are crying because they
miss mom and dad. When you tell them to line up, they don't even
know what a line is," Knutson said.
Despite her frustration, Knutson acknowledges the tests have
some advantages. The results help shape her lesson plans, she
said, as she can quickly group kids by ability. Now and then,
the exams reveal hidden strengths or unexpected weaknesses in
Plus, when scores rise, both she and her students feel a
genuine pride. "At the end of the year, it's like 'Wow, we
really improved.' It's cool because you can see it," Knutson
Testing young children is not a new concept. In the 1980s,
many states assessed children to determine whether they were
ready to enter kindergarten or first grade. Experts in child
development denounced the practice as unfair and unreliable and
it faded out.
In recent years, however, the federal law known as No Child
Left Behind has put pressure on schools to raise scores on the
standardized reading and math tests given to students starting
around age 8. Schools that post poor scores are labeled failing;
principals and teachers can lose their jobs.
With the stakes so high, many administrators have decided to
start testing in the earlier grades, to give kids practice and
to identify students who need help.
The Obama administration accelerated the trend in 2011 with
a $500 million competitive grant to bolster early childhood
education. States that pledged to assess all kindergarteners
earned extra points on their applications.
After all, taxpayers are investing more than $500 billion a
year in public education and "we need to know how children are
progressing," said Jacqueline Jones, a deputy assistant
secretary in the U.S. Department of Education. "There has to be
some accountability," she said.
The administration's grant guidelines encouraged states to
develop holistic assessments that measure the 5-year-olds'
social, emotional and physical development as well as their
cognitive skills. About a dozen states, including Georgia and
Maryland, have developed such broad assessments, according to
the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Others states, though, focus more narrowly on reading and
math skills; some are even beginning to evaluate kindergarten
teachers in part on how well their students do on those exams.
The format of kindergarten assessment varies widely.
The Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which is used by schools
across the United States, runs more than an hour as a teacher
reads dozens of questions aloud and kindergarteners mark their
response on a multiple-choice answer sheet. A typical question
asks kids to pick the picture that illustrates the word 'sharp'
from choices including a piggy bank, a glove and a pair of
On the other end of the spectrum, the Brigance kindergarten
screen is set up as a game that students play one-on-one with a
teacher, who may ask them to stand on one foot for 10 seconds,
to count to 30, or to copy complex shapes like a diamond. The
test takes 10 to 15 minutes and costs about $4 per child.
In addition to these comprehensive tests, curriculum writers
are now incorporating multiple shorter exams into kindergarten
Consider the 68-page manual recently published by New York
City education officials to guide kindergarten teachers through
a math unit aligned to the new Common Core academic standards
rolling out nationally. The unit, meant to introduce 5-year-olds
to algebraic thinking, includes three short pencil-and-paper
exams, culminating with a test that asks students to calculate
all the ways they could divide six books between two shelves.
Some parents welcome all the tests as an indication that
their kids are truly being challenged. If their children spend
too much time finger-painting or playing at the sand table,
"parents will say, 'This isn't academic enough,'" said Peggy
Campbell-Rush, a longtime kindergarten teacher in New Jersey.
But other parents want kindergarten to be the way they
remember it, as a time of relaxed exploration.
Dao Tran, a mother in New York City, said her heart sank
when she learned that her neighborhood school emphasized
standardized testing even in kindergarten. She scoured the city
to find an alternative for her daughter. The public school she
chose requires a 45-minute commute each way, but Tran says it's
The kids there, she said, "seemed happy, and that seemed
like the most important thing."
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Jonathan
Weber and Claudia Parsons)