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Bar Graphs On Tests Feds Require for 4-year-olds

Ohanian Comment: Examiners are trained to remain neutral while giving the test -- offering neither encouragement nor assistance -- and to stay focused on the test. Most people would agree--if they aren't following orders from the Feds, that is--that when talking to a four-year-old you should stay focused on that child. Read the article and see how the examiner, on orders, ignores the child's comments and questions.

That's just for starters. Then look at the inappropriate questions.

Mia Davis zipped through the picture quiz, counting all 20 boxes on the page without a slip.

But words like "horrified" and "swamp" threw her off when she was asked to find the illustration that best matched the word. And she didn't know how to answer a question based on a bar graph of pets preferred by children -- dogs, cats or rabbits.

Mia is only 4. Yet early this month, she sat for a standardized achievement test that is required this fall for all children in federally funded Head Start programs who will enter kindergarten next year.

The results of the pint-sized test, being administered one-on-one to 500,000 pre-kindergartners in Head Start classrooms nationwide, will be used to measure the effectiveness of individual programs and to drive improvement efforts.

Much as public schools now are being held more accountable for student performance on tests, Head Start is facing the same kind of scrutiny for the first time.

The Bush administration called for the testing as a way to ensure that children who complete Head Start will be ready for kindergarten, armed with early skills in literacy and math.

Yet even as testing proceeds, the standardized assessments have raised a noisy debate among early childhood educators about the wisdom of testing young children and the use of the results.

"Some children aren't ready to sit down in front of you with a test booklet," said Paula Delong, who manages Head Start programs in Wake and Chatham counties. "Let's look at where the child is today."

Children do no writing on the tests, which take 15 to 20 minutes to complete. Instead, a teacher or administrator follows a prescribed script and leads each child individually through a series of questions designed to measure a range of skills and knowledge, including following directions, vocabulary, the alphabet and early math.

Teachers record each response on a "bubble" answer sheet similar to forms used on multiple-choice tests by older students.

Head Start officials defend the new testing as appropriate for gathering key information about how well individual programs are teaching academic skills.

"This is an assessment that will allow us to look across programs at children's cognitive development," said Windy Hill, associate commissioner for the Head Start Bureau in Washington. "It helps us to know overall how children are learning."

'Simon Says'

About 12,000 children ages 4 and 5 are being assessed in 375 Head Start centers in North Carolina.

Mia Davis, who attends preschool at Seawell Elementary School in Chapel Hill, took the test in stride. Mary Zulauf, preschool education specialist for Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, sat across from Mia at a little table and told her to listen carefully and do her best.

Mia followed simple "Simon Says" directions designed to measure understanding of language and vocabulary.

"Look up. ... Look down. ... Touch your ear. ... Point to the door. ... Lift one foot. ... Open your hand. ... Pick up the paper. ... Point to the middle of the paper."

Mia pointed to pictures that corresponded to questions about specific words.

At times, she just wanted to chat with Zulauf.

"That's a fish," Mia explained, pointing to a picture choice on the page after correctly identifying a feather.

"I know what a frame is. I have one at home," she said when asked to find a picture of a frame from three other choices.

Zulauf continued to the next set of pictures. Examiners are trained to remain neutral while giving the test -- offering neither encouragement nor assistance -- and to stay focused on the test.

When Mia answered a challenging math question, she wanted to know if she had answered correctly. Zulauf had showed her a picture of six frogs and asked how many would remain if three jumped away. Mia said six.

Limited data

Zulauf said that few of the 40 children she has assessed have been fazed by the testing, though some educators have worried that testing young children might be harmful.

Zulauf is uncertain about how the test data will be used by the federal Head Start agency.

"I don't know if there will be enough information," she said. "Teachers want to know how the information is going to be used -- in a positive way or in a corrective-action kind of way."

Sarah Mansfield, a preschool teacher at Seawell Elementary, said that although the assessment seems reasonable, she worries that too much emphasis might be placed on a single indicator of children's abilities.

"You just have to be careful when you get information from any kind of assessment," Mansfield said. "What do you do with the information? How is it going to help us as teachers?"

Samuel Meisels, an expert in educational assessment of young children, has been a vocal critic of the new tests.

"Young children are in flux developmentally," said Meisels, president of Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago. "A test like this is likely not to be very predictive of how kids will do. The evidence shows that instability is more the norm with young children."

And by attaching "high-stakes" to the test by using it to evaluate individual programs, Meisels said, Head Start runs the risk of narrowing the focus of instruction to academics and de-emphasizing lessons that help young children develop socially and emotionally.

"We teach what we test," he said. "That's an axiom in American education. This is only a small part of what Head Starts teach."

— Todd Silberman
News Observer
Test Used to Assess Head Start




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