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Too young to test?

Education experts debate standardized testing in early elementary grades

A kindergarten class in Central Falls, R.I., in February Associated Press/Photo by David Goldman, file

Too young to test?

Bev Johns remembers a testing day in a Peoria, Ill., classroom for third graders with intellectual disabilities in the 1980s. “I will never forget this as long as I live,” she said. “Those children were being made to take that test and they were sitting there crying.” 

Johns has over 30 years’ experience in special education and was an administrator at a school for children with behavioral special needs. “It’s just, to this day, stuck in my mind,” she said. “I thought, ‘What are we doing to children?’”

The Illinois Legislature is considering a bill to prevent the state Board of Education from implementing standardized testing for kindergartners through second graders, with an exception for tests to help catch particular challenges like learning disabilities. The “Too Young to Test” bill passed the Illinois House 79-26 last week, after lawmakers in the Senate passed a similar bill almost unanimously in late February.

Federal law requires testing for grades three through eight, though officials allowed some flexibility earlier in the pandemic. Thirty-five states offer some kind of testing for kindergarten through second grade, according to a 2019 study from the Council of Chief State School Officers, but many of those assessments are only intended to identify students with learning disabilities or other difficulties meeting educational standards. When it comes to standardized testing, education experts disagree on the value to students and schools.

Samay Gheewala, assistant director of organizing and policy at Illinois Families for Public Schools, argued that standardized testing is not the best way to assess young students’ abilities: “You can’t fit kids into a box.” He prefers observational frameworks that give teachers examples of what to watch for without requiring tests, such as the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey assessment from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Jackie Matthews, the Board of Education’s communications director, told me by email the board was still seeking input on testing and noted 78% of the state’s unified and elementary districts already administer their own K-2 assessments. She said offering a free statewide test could relieve districts of some of the financial burden of standardized testing and pave the way for underfunded schools to use data on early student performance. Were the board to develop a plan to test those young ages, Matthews wrote, any test would be “optional, developmentally appropriate, and would never be a part of accountability.”

But holding schools accountable for students’ progress is one of the main reasons for standardized testing, according to Michael J. Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. 

“The whole idea of having academic standards, as we’ve developed in recent decades, is to try to be clear about what kids need to know and be able to do at various grade levels,” he said. “When we test students with these statewide standardized tests, it gives parents, teachers, the kids themselves, and the public an idea of whether kids are on track.”

Petrilli said testing is even more needed now to understand how the pandemic has affected students — including students in kindergarten through second grade: “It’s really in the early grades where kids are making a lot of progress or not.”

Opponents of standardized testing often cite concerns about testing students too often, taking valuable time from teaching periods, or teachers feeling pressure to “teach to the test.” Petrilli said drawbacks to standardized testing depend on how they’re implemented. At the district or state level, there may need to be guards against over-testing or an overemphasis on test preparation, he said.

As for Illinois schools that are already testing K-2 students, Gheewala said that these decisions are made by local districts that can choose from a variety of options. “A big thing we want is local control,” he said. “You don’t need the state coming down and collecting data on this. That’s why we support districts’ use of their own choice of tests.” Gheewala also expressed concern over how long it may take the state to return test results to teachers.

Gheewala said that Illinois Families for Public Schools didn’t expect such a wide margin of support in the Illinois Legislature, though they did anticipate some bipartisan support: “When you tell people local control, and ending government overreach, you know full well you’re going to get Republicans with that.”

Johns, now the president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Illinois, supports the bill prohibiting statewide testing at such young grades. She said teachers can look for other factors to assess students’ needs: “Have they been read to? Have they had those rich language experiences? Have they been exposed to trauma? There’s a lot of different factors that we can look at to see how they’re doing.”

Lauren Dunn

Lauren covers education for WORLD’s digital, print, and podcast platforms. She is a graduate of Thomas Edison State University and World Journalism Institute, and she lives in Wichita, Kan.

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