With teachers and public education increasingly under the microscope of a concerned public and school reform a top priority, how can we know that children are achieving and reforms are working? Parents and communities want to know that their children are performing up to standard. For years, school districts have used standardized tests to keep track of student performance and to make comparisons between themselves and other districts. Why aren't these types of tests good measures of what young children know and can do? Should we be working to convince our communities that there are better ways to assess student growth? Many respected professional organizations and people believe so.
The results of standardized tests taken by young children may not be valid or reliable for the following reasons:
¥ Young children often do not understand the significance of testing, so do not expend maximum effort in a testing situation. The test results do not tell us what a child knows and can do, when the child does not value or understand the importance of the testing situation.
¥ Young children have very short attention spans. They may not be able to attend to the test for more than a few minutes before becoming distracted. Getting bored after the first 10 minutes for example, a child may mark all items in the first row just to finish the task!
In an actual testing situation, a teacher observed a child marking bubbles next to pictures on the test sheet of favored items instead of correct answers. When she asked him why he had done this, he said it was because he found them more interesting.
¥Young children may have difficulty following multi-step directions. It is not uncommon for a kindergarten or first grade student to struggle to remember two-step directions, so when asked to turn to page 2 in a test booklet; to wait to begin until the teachers says; to mark the paper in the little bubble that corresponds to the correct answer, young children are often lost! This situation frequently leads to a measurement of the child's ability to follow directions and little else!
Another teacher observed a little girl marking her test sheet in pink crayon rather than the obligatory number 2 pencil. When asked by the teacher why she had used a crayon contrary to directions, she responded that she liked pink!
Standardized tests in the early grades are harmful for other reasons. The Association for Childhood Education International has identified several reasons that they are opposed to all testing of young children in preschool and grades K-2 and the practice of testing every child in the later elementary grades. (They are in favor of testing samples of children instead.)
¥ "Results in increased pressure on children, setting too many of them up for devastating failure and, consequently, lowered self-esteem."
¥ "Does not provide useful information about individual children, yet often becomes the basis for decisions about children's entry into kindergarten, promotion and retention in the grades, and placement in special education classes."
¥ "Leads to harmful tracking and labeling of children."
¥ "Compels teachers to spend precious time preparing children to take the tests, undermining their efforts to provide a developmentally sound program responsive to children's interests and needs."
¥ "Limits educational possibilities for children, resulting in distortion of curriculum, teaching and learning, as well as lowered expectations."
¥ "Fails to set the conditions for cooperative learning and problem-solving."
It may not be enough to share this information with parents to change the focus from standardized testing. In order to convince parents that we really don't get very useful information from this type of testing, we may need to put other more appropriate types of assessment in place first. Student portfolios with samples of student work; reflections about the learning process; teacher-made checklists with items applicable to classroom routines and tasks; photographs of three dimensional processes and products; data from running records; tape recordings of conversations and productions; etc. shared in a meaningful way may well be necessary to convince families that there ARE indeed other ways to measure student growth!
When portfolios are paired with developmental continua that show benchmarks along the way toward skills in reading, writing, speaking, listening, math, etc., families have a very graphic picture not only of their child's growth, but also very good indications of the next steps in the learning process. Perhaps when we have these pieces of the assessment process in place, the information above will take on significant meaning. When we can take an item on a standardized test that says that a child has not achieved a skill, but can document from an item in a portfolio that child IS using the skill appropriately, we then will have the necessary evidence that standardized tests are not measuring what we think they are! When the information families learn about their children from appropriate alternative assessment is rich and real, they are assured that their children are learning, then perhaps the information from the standardized test will matter less and we can stop wasting money at the primary level! We can turn testing dollars into trade books, manipulatives, real science materials, field trips and other enriching experiences for young children!
ACEI, "On Standardized Testing: A Position Paper of the Association for Childhood Education International." Childhood Education. Spring, 1991. pg. 130-142.
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