When the federal government announced its $500 million Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) initiative, early childhood education advocates rejoiced.
But when the competition guidelines were rolled out on July 1, critics attacked one of the program’s key components: standardized testing for 4-year-olds.
RTT-ELC guidelines specified that in order to be eligible for funding, states must develop kindergarten readiness assessments to be given to all children entering public school. Tests must be aligned with early learning standards, and implemented statewide by the start of the 2014-15 academic year.
According to journalist, radio host, and author David Sirota, administering standardized tests to 4-year-olds is “madness.”
The U.S. already tests kids more than other industrialized nations, he observed, and our students still score lower on international assessments. Sirota wondered why “the Obama administration, backed by corporate foundations, is intensifying testing at all levels, as if doing the same thing and expecting different results is innovative ‘reform’ rather than what it's always been: insanity.”
RTT-ELC’s testing requirement also worried Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss, who feared that preschool would become “an academic environment that is too regimented for youngsters.”
Creating developmentally appropriate assessments for young children is extremely difficult, she explained, citing the example of a 4-year-old girl who scored abysmally low on a test because she wasn’t in the mood to answer questions.
“[The girl] was scored as essentially having the aptitude of a monkey,” Strauss commented. “That’s the way standardized assessments are, and that’s no way to judge a 4-year-old.”
But while pre-k testing has its share of skeptics, some early childhood experts defend readiness assessments, claiming that they’re widely misunderstood.
“There are some misconceptions about assessments of young children,” Bornfreund clarified in a recent interview. “These aren’t paper and pencil tests. Students aren’t expected to bubble in their answers.”
Bornfreund described early childhood literacy assessments where teachers sit down with students one on one, and ask them questions about letters, sounds, and pictures. In others assessments, teachers watch children at play and record their observations. “This is supposed to create a low-pressure environment,” she explained.
Readiness assessments also differ from typical standardized tests by covering more than just math and literacy. Some, like the Maryland School Readiness Report, target up to seven domains of learning: language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, physical development, and social and personal development.
Testing children before they enter kindergarten is not a new or unusual phenomenon, Bornfreund added. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states already require the assessment of all students, and 25 states specify which pre-approved assessments districts may use.
LOWERING THE STAKES
There are two types of standardized tests: high-stakes and low-stakes. High-stakes test scores are increasingly used by elementary, middle, and high schools to hold back or promote students, grant or deny teacher tenure, calculate teacher pay, and make layoff decisions.
But kindergarten readiness assessments usually fall into the low-stakes category. Their purpose is to improve instruction, not to reward or punish individual educators and children.
For example, Maryland teachers use readiness test scores to make curricular decisions, tailor support to individual student needs, and communicate with parents about their child’s development. Districts use the results to guide teachers’ professional development and target resources.
According to Bornfreund, researchers counsel against using readiness assessments to delay a child’s entry into kindergarten. “Readiness instruments do not always provide an accurate picture of children’s abilities, and often the children recommended for delay are the ones who would benefit most from being in a kindergarten program.”
She added that the initial guidelines of the federal RTT-ELC initiative don’t recommend attaching readiness test scores to high-stakes punishments or rewards. In fact, test scores won’t even be factored into the evaluation or ranking of different early learning programs.
Bornfreund pointed out that there's another type of readiness states should consider: the readiness of schools to accept new students.
“Readiness is about more than children being ready to learn,” she explained. “It's about ensuring a smooth transition from the child’s pre-school environment—whether it be a pre-k program, childcare center, or home—to the kindergarten classroom and early grades of elementary school.”
Applications for RTT-ELC grants will be available in late summer, and awards will be made by the end of the year. RTT-ELC’s goal is to dramatically improve the quality of early learning and development programs serving high-need children. Will statewide testing of 4-year-olds further that goal, or hinder it? What do you think?