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.”