With new evidence of standardized test score-inflation and straightforward adult cheating on K-12 tests in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and across the country, you’d think it would be exactly the wrong time for the Obama administration to commit $500 million to developing additional state tests for a totally new population of children: pre-schoolers.
After all, we know that when we tie school funding and teacher and principal pay to student standardized test scores, tests begin to tell us less and less about what children actually know and how teachers and schools can improve instruction. In social science, the phenomenon is known as Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
That said, I’m cautiously enthusiastic about this latest, early childhood-focused round of Race to the Top, and here’s why: the model the administration has in mind for pre-school assessment is low-stakes for individual teachers and students and measures not only academic performance but also children’s social, emotional, physical and artistic readiness for kindergarten.
Maryland has perhaps the most advanced pre-K assessment tool in the country, and one the Department of Education is pointing to as an example. The state’s “Model for School Readiness” requires incoming kindergarteners to be assessed in seven “domains of learning”: language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, physical development and social and personal development. Teachers perform the assessment by looking at a child’s drawings and writing, watching the child attempt to identify letters and numbers, and observing the child playing and interacting with both peers and adults.
The purpose of the system is to improve instruction for kids, not to reward or punish individual educators. “Kindergarten teachers use the findings to inform classroom instruction, provide appropriate support for individual students, and promote better communication with parents about children’s abilities,” Maryland reports. “Local school systems use the findings to guide professional development opportunities for teachers, inform strategic planning, target resources, and successfully help children make the transition from early childhood to school.”
That said, to protect the integrity of such assessments, the Department of Education will need to provide very specific guidelines. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is also asking states to create a tiered rating system for pre-school programs; if states design systems in which student assessment scores figure heavily into those ratings, pre-K administrators and teachers could be incented to focus on raising student assessment scores above all else. This could corrupt educational practices within pre-schools, where learning should be hands-on, low-pressure and connected to play.
The kindergarten-entry assessments are “probably the most radical part of the [Race to the Top early learning] program,” says Sara Mead, a pre-K expert and senior associate partner at Bellweather Education Partners, a nonprofit Washington, DC, consulting firm. “It would drive a big shift towards much more measurement of early learning program outcomes, which parts of the early-childhood education community have traditionally opposed.… But these are not intended to be assessments to determine whether or not an individual child is ‘ready’ for kindergarten, and they never have high stakes for kids, in terms of denying them entry into kindergarten.”
Laura Bornfreund, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation’s Early Learning Initiative, has written that pre-K assessment remains controversial:
Concerns over inappropriate assessments of young children are rampant, so it bears repeating that appropriate kindergarten readiness assessments are not “tests” in the way adults might think of them. They do not require children to sit down with a bubble sheet and number-two pencil. Often they are based on teachers’ observations of children’s drawings or playtime interactions. For many literacy assessments teachers conduct them by sitting down with students, one by one, to ask them questions about sounds and letters or to point to pictures. The idea is to create a low-pressure experience. But there are still many questions in the research community about how to ensure that assessments are administered in ways that are sensitive to a child’s age and stage of development
What’s promising is that the acknowledged best practices in pre-K assessment are both holistic and child-centered. While Obama’s K-12 education policy calls for student test scores to weigh heavily in teacher and principal evaluation and pay, the Department of Education’s new pre-K policy heeds the advice of leading psychometricians: use test scores to help teachers better target instruction toward individual children, not to reward or punish either individual children or adults in the system.
K-12 education policy would, in fact, benefit from bringing its own approach to testing in-line with the leading early-childhood assessment systems.