I am sickened by a news report from Reuters on the rapid rise in the use of standardized testing at the kindergarten level. The push for academic accountability in the higher grades has been essentially pushed downwards through the grade levels and now sits like a 10-ton block of steel on what used to be literally a “children’s garden” (kinder = child; garten = garden). A number of really lame excuses are given for why educators are doing this to young children. Some say that it’s necessary to carry out the testing to discover which children are “at risk” for failure later on in school. Well, there are other ways of determining whether there is “risk,” such as observing the child engaged in the kinds of activities that kindergarteners do. In other words, you just have a normal kindergarten (by normal, I mean one where children have storytime, block play, painting, dress up, circle share etc.), and then you keep your eyes open as an educator for how each child is doing with each activity. You don’t need a standardized test to do that. The irony is that it’s actually the standardized test that is the ”risk” since it exposes the young child to experiences for which they’re not developmentally ready, and this can result in their being labeled as ”at risk” or disabled in some way, thus carrying a stigma all through their lives.
Another excuse that educators use is that we need to get these students ready for what will come in later grades. And, they reason, since schools have gotten more academic as a result of No Child Left Behind and the increased emphasis on reading, math, and science, and since there are going to be a lot of standardized tests that they will have to take in the future, they need to be ”ready” for them. The argument reduces to something like, “life is hard, so let’s get our children toughened up to prepare for it.” But a couple of weeks ago, when I was speaking in the Philippines, I heard the most marvelous rejoinder to this kind of argument. One of the speakers made the comment: “….when preparing for a famine, what you do is fatten your children up….” You fatten them up. If you starve them, you make it more likely that they’ll die in the famine. And that’s what we do when we inflict standardized tests on kindergarteners; we starve them; we debilitate them so that they don’t have the positive social, emotional, and cognitive foundations (provided by a test-free developmental kindergarten) through which they can cope with the inanities that will come later.
A further argument suggests that what comes later are not inanities at all, but the realities of the marketplace, and that since we’re responsible these days for getting students “college and career ready,” we need to provide age-appropriate ways of doing this in kindergarten. I would agree to this, but standardized testing is NOT an age-appropriate way of doing it. The brains of kindergarten kids are undergoing incredible changes, and their developmental levels are all over the place, so to give a child a test and a score, and essentially thumbtack that child’s ”potential for the future” onto a bulletin board as one fixed quantity for all to see, is simply unfair, because it only reflects one moment in time, and the child at that age moves through many different moods, attention spans, interests, and capacities in the course of even a few minutes. So, if you want to prepare the child for college and career readiness (which, to just step back for a moment, is actually quite absurd at such an early age — let’s let ‘em be kids for awhile, okay?), then provide rich multi-sensory experiences in the kindergarten where children can practice experimenting, problem-solving, reflecting, developing persistence and engaging in other skills that are important for success in college and career. The thing is, you don’t impose these skills from without, which is a mistake that is often made in education. Rather, you create rich environments within which those skills can be practiced and nurtured in a naturalistic way.
A final excuse that promoters of standardized testing in kindergarten give is that we’re increasingly being governed by data-based decision-making in our culture and our schools and that this practice of quantifying learning, even at this early age, is thus aligned with our broader cultural goals. Well, I’m alarmed by this trend toward data-based decision-making in the schools at all grade levels, because it means we care more about numbers than people. It means that we’re spending less time focusing on each unique student and their own qualitative universe of feelings, needs, aspirations, capacities, and goals, and more time looking at spreadsheets of data examining statistical “trends” that we’ll use to control the lives of these students.
There are many other reasons for not using standardized testing in kindergarten, including the fact that it creates stress on kids (a new scientific study reveals that stress can actually damage the DNA — the very genetic essence — of young children) and that testing introduces concepts and curricula for which kindergarteners are not developmentally ready. There’s this whole new tsunami rolling across the landscape called the “Core Common State Standards” which, even though educators claim it is not, is in fact a national curriculum. Kindergarten students are being tested now on algebraic thinking, because it is part of this national Core Common Standards curriculum. As I conclude this post, I note with even greater chagrin, that standardized testing is now being regularly used with preschoolers! Where will it all end? Will parents begin comparing Apgar scores at the birth of their children (Question to Obstetrician: “Is my baby’s Apgar score good enough to get him into Harvard?”). The madness goes on. Or as Kurt Vonnegut once put it: “So it goes.”