Standardized testing in kindergarten: It’s a topsy-turvy world
by Joan Fulenwider
In a culturally diverse school located in a large urban school district in southeast Texas, breakfast is over and class has begun. Fueled by their innate youthful enthusiasm, my kindergarten students begin working energetically with alphabet puzzles, rhyming pictures, dry erase markers and boards, and word builder sets.
When the rest of the class is engaged in hands-on learning tasks, I start to work with a small group of struggling students. While I work to help them learn the basics of literacy, something else is niggling at the back of my mind. How is this group going to perform on the comprehensive, norm-referenced, computer-scored test that will be administered in a few months?
High-stakes tests in kindergarten
Later in the week, that test is the focus of all of our attention. It’s time for the students to practice filling in circles under correct-answer pictures, as I encourage them to do the job as quickly and as accurately as they can.
If you wonder about the appropriateness and the advisability of the “fill in the circles” activity for kindergarten students, you have lots of company, especially among kindergarten teachers. Today, norm-referenced testing has made its way into kindergarten classrooms around the country. This type of standardized test rates how well one student performs in a subject area when compared with a predetermined group of students who are taking the same test. Early childhood education professionals, however, question whether these tests are developmentally appropriate for the very young. But in spite of questions about the tests’ validity, this type of assessment has become prevalent. Some preschool and kindergarten programs use standardized tests for class placement. Indeed, some private elementary schools use them as criteria for admission. The test results have become significant to both young students’ academic futures and teachers’ evaluations.
The use of time in kindergarten
In response to the unique learning styles and developmental needs of young learners, kindergarten teachers generally combine a variety of curriculum strategies that are described as developmentally appropriate practices. These practices support and direct teachers to incorporate environment-based learning centers with hands-on activities. These planned activities (and those that emerge spontaneously) emerge both from children’s interests and recognized learning goals across all developmental domains.
It is clear that children need ample classroom time to explore their world in natural ways that build skills. Engaging, active, and exciting play deepens children’s understanding of the materials and people in their world. For example, children might delve into real, tangible substances like water to develop skills in estimation, weight, volume, and conservation (math ), scrabble tiles to manipulate and copy (language literacy), or a flowering plant to identify and draw (science).
So how should teachers of young children best use the limited time available in the school day? Is it productive to spend the time on test practice sheets created in a format similar to a norm-referenced test?
Research says no. For example, a longitudinal study completed in 2001 demonstrated that students’ high school math achievement could be predicted by examining the complexity of their block play in school as young children. Students who played with blocks when young had better math scores and were enrolled in more math honors courses as teenagers. This correlation remained even after the researchers controlled for IQ (Wolfgang, Stannard and Jones 2001, cited in Dewar 2008). The great preponderance of research has demonstrated that children’s participation in engaging and challenging play correlates positively to later academic success (Copple and Bredekamp 2009; Montie, Xiang, and Schweinhart 2006).
Reading success can also be traced via research to appropriate teaching practices. Burts et al. (1993, cited in Dunn and Kontos 1997) found better first grade reading scores of students identified as low socioeconomic status who participated in developmentally appropriate kindergarten classrooms to those who attended a task-driven, teacher-directed kindergarten.
Another study (Burts, Hart, Charlesworth, and Kirk 1990) looked at social and emotional success in kindergarten classrooms. The researchers compared the effects of two approaches to kindergarten instruction. The first classroom focused on children assigned to desks and paper-and-pencil tasks; the second was a classroom that employed developmentally appropriate practices. Children in the developmentally inappropriate classrooms exhibited more stress behaviors, such as nail biting and hostile actions, than those in the classrooms that supported developmentally appropriate instruction and learning. These behavioral differences were apparent in both whole-group and independent-practice work settings.
Observations of an experienced teacher
Anecdotal evidence from my own classroom is consistent with the research, including identifying stress phenomena in a testing situation. Several years ago, one of my brightest kindergarten students could not stop crying during one of the reading subsections of our district’s norm-referenced test. She was not a student who cried frequently, and based on little handwritten notes she gave me from time to time, I do not think she was fearful of kindergarten but was distraught over the test that would predict her future academic success.
This quiet kindergarten student was an amazing reader. She easily read and understood 27-page books that were part of our supplemental reading program. Yet her norm-referenced reading score appeared to identify a student who barely recognized letter/sound relationships. Because of her score, she was denied the opportunity to participate in the school’s gifted and talented program; her poor testing skills overshadowed her achievements outside the testing situation.
Meeting children’s real needs
Because many educators are currently required to administer norm-referenced tests, some practical suggestions might be helpful to make the process more suitable and less stressful to children. When the inevitable time arrives to practice darkening answer circles, work to ease tensions—yours and the children’s—with these tips.
Use assessment pictures that are kid-friendly, and not too serious.
Present images in a large, colorful format.
Avoid putting too many pictures on a page; four should be sufficient for practice sheets.
On testing days, ensure that the physical surroundings of the classroom are conducive to successful testing. Check that the lighting is adequate and that many sharpened pencils and erasers are available. Make time for healthful snacks, physical activity, and fresh air between test sections.
After the test, ask for access to the scores as soon as they are available, in case you need to advocate for those students who suffer from test anxiety and are unable to show their true abilities on the test.
Most important, stay involved in professional organizations and advocacy groups that support the unique needs, skills, and developmental standing of young children.
Alliances with professional organizations and advocacy groups can magnify the voices of teachers and parents who are eager to support the developmental skills of young children. Two groups have set goals focused on modifying high-stakes, norm-referenced testing for kindergarten children. Play for Tomorrow (www.ultimateblockparty.com) and the Alliance for Childhood (www.allianceforchildhood.org) work to ensure optimum learning in imaginative, active, and developmentally respectful kindergarten classrooms.
Burts, D.C., C. H. Hart, R. Charlesworth, and L. Kirk. 1990. A comparison of frequencies of stress behaviors observed in kindergarten children in classrooms with developmentally appropriate versus developmentally inappropriate instructional practices. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 5, 407-423.
Copple, C. and S. Bredekamp, eds. 2009. Developmentally Appropriated Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8, 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Dewar, G. 2008. The cognitive benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain. Parenting Science. Retrieved March 30, 2011, from www.parentingscience.com/benefits-of-play.html.
Dunn, L. and S. Kontos. 1997. Developmentally appropriate practice: What does research tell us? Retrieved September 30, 2012, from http://ecap.crc.illinois.edu/eecearchive/digests/1997/dunn97.html.
Montie, J. E., Z. Xiang, and L. J. Schweinhart. 2006. Preschool experience in 10 countries: Cognitive and language performance at age 7. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21: 313-31.
About the author
Joan Fulenwider has taught elementary grades for many years and is currently a kindergarten teacher in a culturally diverse southeast Texas school. She is also completing coursework on a path to a doctoral degree in education.