A Plan to Test the City’s Youngest Pupils
By Elissa Gootman
The Bloomberg administration, which has made accountability the watchword of its overhaul of public education, is asking elementary school principals across the city to give standardized tests in English and math to children as young as kindergartners.
In an e-mail message sent on Monday evening, the Education Department's chief accountability officer, James S Liebman, urged principals to join a yearlong pilot program with five testing options for kindergarten through second grade, including timed paper-and-pencil assessments in which students record answers in booklets for up to 90 minutes, as well as ones in which teachers record observations of individual students on Palm Pilots.
Mr. Liebman, the architect of the city's much-debated program of assigning schools letter grades of A through F, said in his message that because New York --like most of the country-- now begins formal testing in third grade, the system "does not give schools credit for this foundational work or provide you with the means to evaluate the effectiveness of your K-2 programs."
The pilot program, which will cost $400,000 and was not publicly announced, is already inciting outrage among some educators and advocates who worry that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's efforts to overhaul the school system have been overly focused on standardized testing.
While the federal No Child Left Behind law has required schools nationwide to administer tests starting in the third grade since 2002, Mr. Bloomberg has gone further, using test scores to determine school grades as well as bonuses for teachers and principals. The administration has also expressed interest in using test scores to determine teacher tenure, an idea that is being blocked by legislators in Albany.
Throughout the city and across the nation, teachers and parents have protested the increasing time spent on testing--and test preparation--particularly in elementary grades, where critics say that development of children's creativity has suffered. Some experts question the effectiveness of such assessments for very young children, where lessons about sharing and socialization are sometimes considered as important as facts and figures.
"It sounds like a downward extension of whatever's good, but also what's bad about standardized testing in the higher grades, with more risk because we know that standardized testing isn't appropriate at those ages," said Lorrie Shepard, dean of the School of Education at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Now they're venturing into territory where many more people say that the negative will far outweigh any positive."
In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Liebman stressed that the pilot program was voluntary-- he said 50 of the city's 700-some elementary principals had already expressed interest--and that the tests were not high-stakes. They would not, for example, determine whether students moved to the next grade, as is the case with older children.
Mr. Liebman also pointed out that kindergartners and first and second graders are already evaluated by their teachers. Most schools use a system called the Early Childhood Literacy Assessment System, which takes teachers a long time to administer because they must meet with every child individually.
The new testing methods combine results in English and math for a single cumulative score for each child, he said, making comparisons across classrooms and over time easier.
"This is a substitute for something that is already taking place and has been for years, and which schools have found to be very powerful but want to be more powerful because they want to be able to measure progress," he said. "If you told a doctor, 'I want you to treat me but I do not want you to take my temperature, I don't want you to take any blood samples, I don't want you to do any diagnosis, just treat me,' the doctor would be at a loss to know what to do."
He said this year's experiment could include up to 12,720 of the city's 200,000 or so kindergarten through second graders, and that depending on the results, the city could mandate a single test to be used next year, allow principals to choose which tests they prefer or go back to doing things the way they were done before. His e-mail message to principals promised that their feedback "will provide an important basis, among others, for deciding whether it would be appropriate in coming years to measure progress in grades K-2 and, if so, how best to do so."
Mr. Liebman said that in future years, elementary school principals might be able to request that their kindergarten through second-grade scores be incorporated into their overall report card grades. Asked whether all school report card grades might someday include the youngest children's scores, he said: "We just haven't been thinking about that. We've talked about the option possibility."
In fact, Mr. Liebman said the new pilot program was developed after principals complained that the A through F grades, which judge schools largely on the basis of yearly progress on standardized tests, did not reflect the progress they had made with their youngest children.
But Jane Hirschmann, the founder of Time Out From Testing, a New York City anti-testing group, called the pilot program "criminal behavior," saying of the Bloomberg administration, "They're committed to turning curriculum into a testing regime."
"They knew they were going to be up against a very big movement saying, now you've gone way too far, so what do they do?" said Ms. Hirschmann. "They wait until the summer, and they sneak it in the back door."
Tovah P. Klein, director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development, said that even if the tests were not intended to have real consequences, they would.
"Once you have a number behind a kid, it becomes high stakes because teachers make judgments on kids--"Oh, this kid needs remedial help, this kid's not learning as well. It ranks kids," she said. "What these tests do is say to the teachers, 'This is what matters, that kids know this single decontextualized piece of information.'"
Among the options that principals may choose from are two written exams--designed by the well-known testing companies CTB/McGraw-Hill and Pearson-- one of which will be given twice a year in English (55 to 70 minutes per test) and math (40 to 65 minutes), the other three times a year in both subjects (60 to 90 minutes each). Two other options involve 10-minute assessments, given three times a year, in which teachers record student observations based on a scripted dialogue. The fifth has students complete a test online, for 20 to 35 minutes, three times over the course of the year.
Virginia Pepe, the principal of Public School 163, Alfred E. Smith, on the Upper West Side, said she would send someone to learn more about the testing at a coming information session.
"We'll be going in as critical consumers and we will be making, I think, thoughtful decisions about what's going to be best for the children in our school," Dr. Pepe said. "Working in a very targeted way with children based upon assessment information can really have very positive results, if it's not used to shackle instruction but it's used to enrich the learning opportunities."
But she noted that parents might balk at some of the options, saying: "If you're selling a 60-minute test in kindergarten, I'd be hard-pressed to make that sale."
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