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Are We Going Overboard With Childhood Testing?

February 24, 2014
Original Author: Elizabeth Daley

children at school

Testing those little kids is just hard on them…it just seems cruel to the little kids.

Heidi Butkus

former kindergarten teacher and educational consultant

Testing has always been part of education. But what is the right time to begin testing young children?

In California, parents have the option to opt-out of statewide standardized tests, but in most schools, district-wide examination begins before abstaining is even an option.

What are DIBELS? 

Kindergarteners start literacy testing early with DIBELS, the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, and since the exams are considered part of educational instruction, parents aren’t given the option to opt-out.

Susan Tandberg director of K-12 instruction in the Los Angeles Unified School District said the measurements aren’t state-mandated but are common at schools across the state. Statewide testing doesn’t begin until third grade and Tandberg said said the purpose of earlier assessments is to inform instruction.

“We have found that the use of an instrument that allows us to look at whether our students are acquiring the literacy skills to be good readers is helpful,” Tandberg said.

A Challenging Test

For Kindergarten throughout second-grade students in Los Angeles, DIBELS testing takes place three times per year and students perform writing assessments twice per year. For DIBELS, each student is pulled out of class individually and given a series of 60-second questions to track reading progress. The test is short, but administering it to an entire class can be time-consuming and not very useful, according to former kindergarten teacher and educational consultant Heidi Butkus of LaVerne, California.

Butkus said she found the tests to be initially stressful for her young students, many of whom had just left home for the first time. In her school, test administrators came in to test children on the second day of school, and the children were a little frightened.

“They got used to being with the teacher, then all of the sudden they were taken out of the classroom and they got taken outside the door. The children didn’t know the testers, and they can only tell them the directions one time,” Butkus said.

Impact of do-overs

If a child scored in the lowest 25th percentile, Butkus said she was required to re-administer the test to check on the child’s progress. The process of re-examining several students while ensuring the rest of the class had something to do was challenging for her.

“Testing those little kids is just hard on them…it just seems cruel to the little kids,” Butkus said, “ but the real problem with the tests is that they just told us what we already knew. We knew which students were going to do well already.”

Butkus said the increased focus on testing at her school changed the scholastic environment among teachers from one of collaboration to one of competition. “People just started to care about how their class was scoring in comparison to other people’s classes, and they were focused on improving scores rather than helping each other,” she said.

 Why not just opt out?

Liz Dwyer, former teacher, education editor for GOOD magazine and a parent of two children in Los Angeles, said the reason for an increased reliance on tests is partially monetary. She said test makers come out with new metrics on the heels of curriculum changes and use their considerable economic influences to get their exams into schools. “There is a bonanza of cash for creating a whole system that revolves around these tests,” she said. “Testing agencies are taking advantage of a sentiment we have in our culture that we need to beat China, we need to measure up,” she added.

Dwyer would allow her two sons, 10 and 13 to opt out of statewide standardized tests if they wanted to, but she knows that if they did there could be funding consequences for their schools or repercussions for their teachers. Also, if she didn’t allow her kids to take certain tests, they may not be identified as gifted and couldn’t qualify for certain specialized schools.

Still, she has seen tests negatively impacting her children’s education. “My fifth grader was telling me how much he doesn’t like going to school because we are in the test prep phase of the year,” she said.

Future of testing 

With the adoption of the new Common Core Curriculum in California, Wyant said it is her hope that tests will change, if not in quantity then in quality.

Dwyer agrees. “I lean more towards performance tests,” she said, “You would know so much more about what a child could actually do. Schools should be producing folks ready to participate in Democracy, now we have folks ready to bubble in A, B, C or D,” she said.

Dwyer advocates for lab style-testing or project-based exams that measure a child’s competency—tests that might be considered to be more like DIBELS. Tandberg doesn’t see increased reliance on testing as being a new or negative thing, “I think that it all comes back to the ways we view tests,” Tandberg said, if we could influence anything it would be how testing is defined. I don’t’ think there is too much assesment in any way shape or form as long as it’s formative in guiding instruction.”