GUEST: How testing hurts kindergartners

Courtesy FoxNews
Courtesy FoxNews

By PHYLISS DOERR

As a kindergarten teacher, I find the trend to bring more testing into kindergarten not only alarming, but counter-productive and even harmful.

In the kindergarten at my school, we do not administer standardized tests; however, hours of testing are included in our math and language arts curriculum. In order to paint a realistic picture of the stress, damaging effects and colossal waste of time caused by testing in kindergarten, allow me to bring you to my classroom for our first test prep session in late September for 5-year-old children.

The test for which I was preparing my students was vocabulary. I say a word that we had learned in our “nursery rhyme” unit. Then, I read a sentence containing that word. If the sentence made sense, using the word correctly, the student would circle the smiley face. If the word were used incorrectly, they would circle the frown. This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed — a foundational problem for this type of test.

My first sample vocabulary challenge as we began our practice test was the word “market,” from the nursery rhyme “To Market, To Market.” After explaining the setup of the test, I begin. “The word is market,” I announced. “Who can tell me what a market is?” One boy answered, “I like oranges.” “Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?” “I like apples. I get them at the store.” We’re moving in, closer and closer. A third child says, “It’s where you go and get lots of things.” Yes! What kinds of things? “Different stuff.” Another student chimes in: “We can get oranges and apples and lots of other types of food at the market.” “Excellent! Everyone understands market?” A few nod.

“Now, I will give you a sentence with the word ‘market’ in it. If the sentence makes sense, you will circle the smiley face, but if it is a silly sentence and doesn’t make sense, you circle the frown.” A hand goes up. “Mrs. Doerr, what’s a frown?” I explain what a frown is.

Next, I read the sentence: “‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ Now, does that sentence make sense?”

The students who are not twisting around backward in their chairs or staring at a thread they’ve picked off their uniforms nod their heads. “Please, class, listen carefully. I’ll tell you the sentence again: ‘I like to play basketball at the market.’ That makes sense? Remember we said a market is where we shop for food.”

A hand goes up. Terrell says, “I like soccer.” “Okay, Terrell, that’s great! But did I use the word ‘market’ correctly in that sentence?” “I don’t know.”

Another hand. “Yes? Ariana? What do you think?” “My dad took me to a soccer game! He plays soccer!” “Thank you for sharing that, Ariana.” The students picked up on something from the sentence and made what seems to be, but is not, a random connection. “Girls and boys, look at me and listen. I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market and play basketball?” At this point everyone seemed to wake up. Finally! I was getting somewhere! “YES!” they cried out in unison.

Of course! It would be a total blast to play basketball in the market!

So here we find another huge problem with this vocabulary test: a 5-year-old’s imagination. A statement that uses a word incorrectly sounds OK to a child whose imagination is not limited by reality. It is the same reason Santa and the Tooth Fairy are so real to kindergartners — unencumbered imagination.

After explaining why we might not play basketball in the market, I called on a volunteer to come up and circle the frowning face. She went straight to number 3 on my giant test replica, skipping 1 and 2, and circled the frown. Why? She’s 5 and has never seen anything like this. Give the same student a floor puzzle of ocean life and she and her friend will knock it out in 10 minutes, strategizing, problem-solving and taking turns with intense concentration.

The rest of my “test prep” for the 5-year-olds went about the same.

Then came the real thing. As testing must be done in small groups since the children cannot read instructions and need assistance every step of way, I split the class into two or more groups to test.

The results of the administration of the test on the first group were mixed. Despite being the higher level students, their very first test was definitely not an easy task. Instructions for anything new in kindergarten are painstaking, but for a developmentally inappropriate task, it is nearly impossible. For example, making sure my little test-takers have found their place on the page requires constant teacher supervision. I cannot just say, “Number 2” and read the question. I must say, “Put your finger on the number 2.” Then I repeat, “Your finger should be on number 2.” Then repeat it. And repeat again, since some have difficulty identifying numbers 1 through 10. “Let me see your pencil ON number 2. No, Justin, not on number 3. On number 2.” I walk around and make sure that each child is on the right number – or on a number at all. If you’re not watchful as a kindergarten teacher, it is common to have a 5-year-old just sit there, and do nothing test-related — just look around, or think, or doodle.

Next, I tested a second group. During testing, I walked around to see that a few students had nothing written on their papers, one had circled every face — regardless of expression — on the whole page, another just circled all the smileys and one, a very bright little girl, had her head down on her arms. I tapped her and said, “Come on, you need to circle one of the faces for number 5.” She lifted her head and looked up at me. Tears streamed down her face. I crouched down next to her. “What’s wrong, honey?” “Mrs. Doerr, I’m tired,” she cried. “I want my mommy.” It was a moment I will never forget. I took her test and said, “Would you like a nice comfy pillow so you can take a rest?” She nodded. I exchanged her paper for a pillow.

So this is kindergarten.

We force children to take tests that their brains cannot grasp.

We ignore research that proves that children who are 5-6 learn best experientially.

We rob them of precious free play that teaches them how to be good citizens, good friends and good thinkers.

We waste precious teaching and learning time that could be spent experientially learning the foundations of math, reading and writing, as well as valuable lessons in social studies, science and health.

I support and enjoy teaching much of our math and language arts curriculum. Teaching vocabulary is a valuable practice. However, I contend that testing in these areas at this age is not only meaningless, since it does not accurately measure a child’s academic ability, but it is actually counter-productive and even damaging.

Further, I contend that my students are no further along at the end of the year than they would be if we eliminated most of the testing. In fact, they might be further along if we eliminated testing because of the time we could spend engaging in meaningful teaching and learning. Finally, I believe that a child’s first experience with formal education should be fun and exciting, and give them confidence to look forward to their education, not full of stress and fear because they did not measure up.

Parents and educators must speak out against harmful trends in education so that they can be reversed immediately.

Ms. Doerr is a kindergarten teacher in New Jersey. This essay was taken from testimony she presented to the state school board. It appeared earlier in Diane Ravitch’s blog and is used with Ms. Doerr’s permission.

6 comments

  1. Kate

    One of many problems with the testing juggernaut is the view of students merely as data-generating units whose sole function is to feed the machine that is an ever-expanding profit-generating maw of corporate interests. I’m sad for the children who will never get to experience the joy of learning and discovery. Thanks to Ms. Doerr for sharing her experience with the rest of us. Too many of us see school only through the lens of our own schooling and, sadly, today’s students do not receive that same kind of rich and stimulating experience.

  2. Public Education Supporter

    I read this on Ravitch’s original blog post but I think I had literally blocked out how tragic it is and how it made me feel, most likely as a defense mechanism. It is, simply stated, heartbreaking. We need to create a new ring in Dante’s Inferno for the education disrupters and deformers – it’s what they deserve.

  3. First Hand

    What a fantastic article. Thank you.

    What is happening in the kindergarten is also happening in the first grade with just turned six-year-old students and seven-year-old students.

    I wonder how many people know that the bones in our hands do not fully develop until we are eight years old, therefore forcing children younger than this to do as much writing as is required in our current curriculums really does “hurt their hand,” as so many of my students tell me.

    Everything that is age appropriate has been basically taken out of the curriculums and changed to test the students. Using ones imagination and creativity has been taken out of the curriculum and replaced with informational textbooks and text dependent questions. Gone from the curriculum are so many rich stories that children love to listen to. In fact, the new common core literacy standards do not even have a standard for creative writing.

    In the first grade, teachers also read everything to the students and those happy and sad faces are also used for assessments. I can assure you that first grade students have as much difficulty mastering these faces as kindergarten students. Many circle both faces. Many circle the wrong face, but when asked had the correct answer.

    It got to the point where some of us came up with a color-coded system. Red if the answer was false (sad face) and green if the answer was true (happy face). This did help, a little, in seeing if the students understood the information, but it is still unfair to test students this young using “formal assessments.”

    In my many years of teaching, especially urban children, I have learned that too often words that I think everyone understands are often not understood, and yet most of the students will not ask what the word means. That leads teachers to assume that the students understood the question, until I ask for more details.

    Just like the writer, my first grade students would have thought playing basketball in a market was perfectly acceptable. They too would have gone off the topic and started speaking about all of the other things that they like to eat that comes from a market, and all of the sports they would like to play.

    In order for our students to be successful academically and socially we need to get back to being serious about teaching young children and learning what is age appropriate and not. Social skills, playing together in small groups, telling silly stories, learning how to use their thinking skills from play is what creates good thinkers and future leaders of our country. Not taking notes while a book is being read to them or they are watching a video.

    By the way, how is circling a happy or sad/frowning face, helping these students be “college ready?” I don’t know of any college exam that for the correct answer has a circle with two eyes and a mouth that goes up or down.

    Since we always refer to Finland, why don’t we look at them and what they do for the “whole child” and in testing, or rather their lack of testing students, especially this young?

    I truly want to be the best teacher that I can be. I want my students to be excited about learning. I want them to not be afraid to ask me what a word means. I want them to share why they liked a book and I want most of all for my students to be able to use their imaginations. We can only do this, if we allow children to be children and as teachers we teach age appropriate materials.

  4. Irene Dunsavage

    Good points and not to disparage anyone ..but the practice of testing has been going on for at least 5 years .

    How do you expect this to stop immediately?
    No body..no body did anything when this was put in place though we knew how anti- children it is ..yet now we are incensed ?

    • Phyllis

      The power to change the system is in the hands of principals, superintendents and parents. It is very difficult for a teacher to say to his or her superiors “I’m sorry I am not administering this test.” But when school and district leaders are presented with new materials and tests, they should push back. They should say “This testing is not appropriate for a five or six-year-old.” Thank God there are motivated parents out there who are making noise against the insanity of what is going on. They are the ones who are actually making some progress. The politicians who are making these decisions are completely out of touch with how children learn best. And the decisions that they are making and mandating are destroying education. They make decisions to improve the system but are actually completely counterproductive and only making things worse.
      There is so much to talk about sorry state of education, the inappropriateness of many methods, strategies and curriculum and especially over testing and testing too soon. We are writing articles, posting blogs, forming organizations against testing, and many students/parents are opting out of testing. If there is anything else I can do, believe me I will. I just don’t know what that is. I can’t storm into a government office and demand change. So that’s why I wrote the article describing what goes on in my kindergarten class. Maybe, just maybe, someone who is influential will read it and, with many of us speaking out and using whatever power we have, things will begin to change.

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