The Washington Post started a series last week on The Rise of the Testing Culture in America.
Along with painting and gluing and coloring and playing, Kisha Lee engages the youngsters in her day-care program in another activity: testing.
Three- and 4-year-olds take spelling tests of such words as "I," "me" and "the," as well as math tests, from which they learn how to fill in a bubble to mark the right answer.
There is a lot of pressure on all sides to prepare children for the tests they will take throughout their academic careers. As the director of a school which has language classes for children as young as 2 years old, I've felt that pressure, both internally (amongst the educators at school, myself included) and externally (from parents and from media). We ALL want to see the children excel. There is a danger to thinking that adding tests will push everyone (teachers, students, parents) to perform better, but there are ways to assess progress and keep standards high without resorting to high-pressure standardized testing for young children.
Here are a few tips for educators and parents to keep in mind.
1. Involve the parents both at school and at home. Our classes for 2-4 year olds include the parents in class so that parents will learn ideas and strategies for learning at home and will be able to watch the progress their children make. For the elementary school aged children, we have regular "challenges" students do with the teacher in class...things ranging from identifying the letters, days, months, etc. to performing simple dialogues. Before the students can do these challenges, they need to get a stamp from the parents showing they've practiced this together. This not only ensures that the parents are involved in their English education, but it also allows the parents to regularly gauge the progress their children are making.
2. Understand that assessment does not necessarily equal testing. Testing is one form of assessment. You can assess progress with portfolios of student work, through observation, with video and audio projects, with school performances, etc. Tests aren't necessarily bad and many students love the challenge of a test. But tests need not and should not be viewed as the only meaningful form of assessment. Tests can be particularly misleading when used with very young children who may fully understand the material on the tests but perform poorly due to lack of understanding of the testing procedure, lack of concentration that particular day, or any number of factors. Assessment of young children needs to be broad...you can't rely on the snapshot views that occasional tests provide.
3. You can introduce the test-taking skills that children will need in the future without actually making them take the kind of tests they will be taking in the future. In other words, the best way to prepare children for multiple choice, fill in the bubble-type standardized tests is not necessarily to give them those kinds of tests. There are a lot of multiple-choice type games you can play. For example, set up four areas in the classroom (place signs with the letters A, B, C, and D in each corner of the room) and have an active quiz! The teacher (or students) can read questions and the students have to choose a letter and go to it. Speed the game up as you go along to introduce a pressure element, but in a fun way.
4. Communicate what the tests mean to the parents. One of the problems with testing young children is that their parents often view the testing process from an adult perspective. As an adult, we think that if we perform poorly on a test it means we're not working hard enough. We can solve that problem by working harder. When a 4 year-old does poorly on a fill-in-the-bubbles math test, it's not reflective of her work ethic...it's not as if you can say, "well, she just needs to study harder." Yet, that's exactly how many parents may react. It's hard for some parents to understand that their child's math abilities will likely be improved MUCH more by playing with legos than by memorizing simple addition problems.
So teachers need to communicate with parents what the tests, or any kind of assessment, mean. They need to be clear that test results aren't indicative of whether or not your four-year-old is studying hard enough. It's a way to help teachers and parents choose activities and tools (age appropriate activities and tools) which will best help the child.