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

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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

shelves?

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

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.

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

care."

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

her students.

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

said.

ACCOUNTABILITY

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

scissors.

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

lesson plans.

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

worth it.

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)