Is Pre-K Testing and Accountability Coming?

Last week it was announced that, as part of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC), states wanting a shot at a grant will need to have standards and assessments in place to gauge children's kindergarten readiness. The possibility of Pre-K testing and accountability already has the early childhood world buzzing, with many concerned, confused or both.

In a conference call with reporters, in which the draft criteria was announced, senior advisor for early learning in the Department of Education, Jacqueline Jones, stated that this program "is really all about one thing: making sure children enter kindergarten ready to succeed." And herein lies part of the confusion.

Talking about "kindergarten readiness" gives the impression that the assessments are to take place prior to children entering kindergarten. But in a panel discussion on just this topic, I was assured that these assessments were not intended to be administered at the Pre-K level. Rather, according to panelist Lisa Guernsey, they are meant to be given by teachers within the first month or so of kindergarten, to determine which children need more help in certain areas, including language, social/emotional and physical skills.

So far, so good. In fact, all four of the panelists (joining Lisa were Lynn Kagan, a frequent consultant to the White House, Congress, the National Governors' Association, and the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services; Amanda Moreno, who has written extensively about how to conduct appropriate early childhood assessment and the perils of high-stakes testing; and Maureen Kelleher, author of the "Early Years" blog at Education Week) expressed optimism about the initiative. Dr. Kagan pointed out that the intent of the initiative is to determine where children are upon entering kindergarten, learn of their strengths and weaknesses and use the data to improve instructional practices that are tailored to the individual child.

Who could argue with that? By the end of the conversation, I was sharing their optimism. After all, each of these panelists is an expert in early childhood education for whom I have the highest regard.

Then the cynic in me took over. (I've seen a lot to be cynical about in my 31 years in the education field.) During the discussion Dr. Kagan had also pointed to the possibility that "premature and inappropriate assessment" could drive curriculum in inappropriate ways or put teachers in jeopardy when they don't deserve to be.

What are the odds that states will employ premature and inappropriate assessment? The cynic (realist?) in me says they are all too good.

During the initial press conference, special assistant to the president for education in the White House Domestic Policy Council, Roberto Rodriguez, assured the public that the comprehensive assessment system that tracks child development and learning at key milestones would involve observational assessments, as opposed to paper-and-pencil tests. But I remember when, eight years ago, the Bush administration decided to conduct standardized assessments of 4-year-old Head Start children. Those were not paper-and-pencil tests either; that didn't keep them from being inappropriate.

The principal at a large Head Start center in Midland, Texas, conducted the first tests with her 4-year-olds and told me that, among other things, the children were expected to interpret graphs (a task requiring highly developed logical/mathematical and visual/spatial skills) and that they were supposed to be able to describe a swamp. That would be challenging for anyone of any age (what are the right words to describe a swamp?) but it was especially challenging for these children, because they lived in Midland, Texas -- a place more well known for tumbleweeds than swamps. How, then, were its youngest residents to describe something they likely had never come across in their lives?

What most appalled me about the testing, however, was the fact that the tester was not allowed to react or respond in any way to a child's answer. Anyone who knows 4-year-olds can well imagine the confusion and anxiety that can result when a child answers a question and waits and watches to see if she's succeeded in pleasing the adult, whom she most definitely wants to please, only to have the adult sit expressionless before her.

This principal told me that these tests she was required to administer twice a year were so stressful that the children cried as they were taking place. They were so stressful, in fact, that she hired substitutes to give them, because she didn't want the children to associate these awful experiences with their regular teachers.

Naturally, some of you will be inclined to point out that we are no longer under the Bush administration, and that those tests were scrapped amid much outcry concerning their developmental inappropriateness. So I will tell you the other reason why my inner cynic is screaming at me: There is much "premature and inappropriate assessment" currently going on.

If you don't believe me, take a look at some of the teachers' forums. They tell the sad tale of preschool children being taught "to the test." Of 4- and 5-year-olds being instructed in how to fill in bubbles on a piece of paper -- and I'm not referring to the fun, soap-filled bubbles with which young children should be engaging.

There are numerous experts who tell us that standardized tests are indicative of neither intelligence nor potential. And we've read and heard much about countries like Finland, where standardized testing is rejected and yet they are at the top of the world's educational heap.

But we are a nation that insists upon quantification -- whether we like it or not, whether it's good for us or not. Is Pre-K testing and accountability coming? In a concession to both the cynic and the optimist in me, I'll simply quote a friend who is fond of saying, "Time will tell."