NY school cancels standardized test in preschool

In New York, there was first news that about 90 percent of the parents from one preschool had decided not to allow their 4-year-olds to take a fill-in-the-bubble test when many of them couldn’t even read yet, as reported here by TheRealNews.com. When she found out 88 of the 97 students in the preschool wouldn’t be taking the test, principal Julie Zuckerman called off the test because with so many parents boycotting, the results would be meaningless.

“My colleagues and I have been adamant all along with the increase in testing that if it ever treaded into the K-2 arena, that that would be a step too far,” Ms Zuckerman was quoted as saying.

That was earlier this week, but on Friday, word out of state Education Commissioner John King’s office is that a few other standardized tests are being cancelled as well. The Associated Press had this report:

Noting that the frequency and number of tests has remained relatively constant over the past 10 years, King wrote that education officials “recognize that a variety of pressures at the state and local level may have resulted in more testing than is needed and in rote test preparation that crowds out quality instruction.”

“The Regents and the department will continue to look for ways to reduce testing that is not needed without sacrificing the valuable information assessments provide,” King told superintendents in more than 700 school districts. “We welcome your input.”

Rolling out the Common Core

Concerns about the Common Core standards at extremely young ages, like kindergarten, have been levied for some time. The Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative, issued in March 2010, here, says, in part, “We have grave concerns about the core standards for young children. … The proposed standards conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.”

But the following month, in April 2010, still before states adopted the standards, a joint statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education said, “Taken as a whole, the draft standards were fair and age appropriate for kindergarten through 3rd grade,” although they also say considerable work lies ahead: “There is an urgent need for the development of comprehensive and appropriate curricula and assessments, professional development for teachers and administrators in effective practice, and resources to ensure that all children have opportunities to meet challenging and achievable expectations for learning.”

Here’s the rub: Even though the statements disagree over whether the standards are “age-appropriate,” they completely agree on some key points, which is what we should consider.

The first point of agreement, implied in one case, is that testing at young ages can be a problem. The health and educational professionals noted that testing is unreliable before age 8 and recommends it not be used in schools. The national associations stressed that “much work lies ahead” to develop better assessments for this age group, implying that existing assessment instruments wouldn’t cut it. Their statement fails to say why existing exams wouldn’t work, but the tests proposed in New York were substantially similar to existing multiple-choice tests that would most likely be included in the group of objectionable tests.

Second, both statements agree that standards in only math and language arts will tend to narrow the curriculum, focusing only on math and reading and preventing teachers from providing valuable time for kids in other areas, like social-emotional learning, play, and science. It will also tend to encourage teachers to teach math and reading for hours on end, long after kindergarten brains have stopped listening and learning. Such a drill-and-kill approach to teaching is repugnant to our knowledge of how young brains are wired.

Finally, both statements acknowledge that evidence doesn’t even suggest that standardized instruction in the extreme early years has any effect on success in high school. In fact, some evidence supports the opposite hypothesis: Countries that we often hear about as providing strong math and science students in high school enrich children with non-academic activities and play during ages 6 and 7. Both statements were emphatic about this point.

My conclusion is, as it has always been, that the standards themselves aren’t the problem. They are simply a list of rules for our schools. How schools play by those rules will determine the success of our students in the 21st century.

Allow me to use a baseball analogy, since the US is now in the middle of the World Series. All baseball teams agree to a few standardized rules: For example, games are nine innings long, unless there’s a tie, in which case, it’s settled in a certain way. Within those nine innings, batters may bunt or swing away, defenses may come up with trick plays to get a runner out, and so on. The rules don’t tell managers how to run their teams, but the standards make the game fair for everyone.

Since the Common Core came out, we have had a discussion in the US about the difference between “standards” and a “curriculum.” I pointed out that the Common Core looked exactly like Maryland’s former standards, which our state board entitled the “Voluntary State Curriculum.”

So, is the Common Core a “curriculum” or was the Maryland State Board of Education wrong when it entitled the state’s former standards? It turns out, they were wrong, technically, but anybody who pays too much attention to technicalities like that will never teach a child anything.

Besides, those standards, whatever you call them, were part of what took the state to the top of the Education Week list of states five years in a row. The Common Core looks like the old state curriculum, so whatever we call it, the Common Core is a list of standards, broken down by grade level. What teachers bring into their classroom, their “playbook,” if we’re sticking with the baseball analogy, is what, technically, constitutes a “curriculum.”

But in the not-so-technical world in which we live, the standards and the curriculum are both part of a completely connected circle. As far as teachers and students are concerned—and I could easily argue that I don’t really care about what anybody else thinks of the standards—the standards, any curriculum schools may use, the assessments that measure the standards, and the professional development of teachers to implement all of this with a group of kids are all integral parts of the same job description for teachers. We have to get over haggling over words, especially since the venerable Maryland State Board of Education didn’t pay too much attention to the strict definition of words when they decided to lead one of the nation’s top states in the education field. I would prefer to listen to what they have to say.

Yes, some content is gone and other content is moved around to a different grade level, but the standards themselves look fine. I have found, as I reported a few months ago, that some standards may not be testable, because they rely on knowledge or skills from a grade level that comes after the standard in question, so some revision may be necessary once we see how the standards play out.

That is, to stick with the baseball analogy, teachers who have to develop and execute a playbook, are certain to find some of the rules problematic. And just as commissioners reevaluate the rules from time to time—recall how much the tackling rules in football have changed recently, as we have learned about concussion injuries—the Common Core should be at least as flexible since the outcome has no less value to us as a society.

And serious questions, like those posed by parents in New York and by Ms Zuckerman, the dedicated principal there who canceled the preschool standardized test, should lead to revisions very soon. The standards are a good beginning, but there is a growing need, as they are implemented across a very diverse nation, to revisit them, given some of the complaints being heard. And certainly, the tests from PARCC, which Maryland and Illinois have every intention of using, need to be improved. If what comes out is anything like what has been previewed, we’re taking a step backward in terms of assessment.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.