'Sorting' young children has unintended consequences
IN THE Star-Bulletin's Aug. 1 editorial
, three positive points were made about the Junior Kindergarten program:
» Schools' flexibility to assign kindergarten children to classrooms.
» The goal of promoting all kindergarten children to first grade.
» The focus on appropriate ways to teach both older and younger kindergartners -- something called "developmentally appropriate practices" for young children.
Here's where we disagree: Your editorial supports ability testing and sorting of young children, stating that "the law ... directs schools to assess, then place children in junior kindergarten or kindergarten based on ability." Sounds sensible but it's not. Such a practice can lead to serious unintended consequences -- ones that can harm our youngest schoolchildren and have the potential of entangling DOE in legal court battles. Ability testing for the purpose of segregating young children into classrooms is a precarious policy at best. And here are three reasons why -- all of which have decades of support from peer-reviewed, published research findings:
» Young children are not good test takers.
Their attention spans are short. They have little experience with testing, wondering why they are being asked such strange stuff (like "What can you do in a lake?"). Many five-year-olds are reluctant to answer ... or are shy ... or are distracted by the ring on the tester's finger or ... you get the picture. The younger they are, the worse test takers they are.
Their test results are therefore far from reliable and not particularly valid, especially when the testing is done by a stranger in an unfamiliar setting -- for example, by a kindergarten teacher or counselor in a "big, scary" elementary school. For these reasons, even No Child Left Behind does not require testing below third grade.
» Ability (IQ) or aptitude testing is complicated, complex and expensive.
Ability or aptitude testing of young children should be done on a case-by-case basis and done carefully and cautiously by highly trained professionals. If done correctly, it is expensive, time consuming and legitimate only when learning disabilities are suspected and special education service might be needed. It should not be done wholesale to every entering kindergartner -- about 11,000 children. And then not done simply to sort 5-year-olds into classrooms for the purpose of denying some of them entry into the regular kindergarten program.
This kind of wholesale testing overidentifies children from low-income, minority or second-language backgrounds, or those without preschool experience. It labels them as "low"-ability kids. And then these "low-ability" youngsters are all placed in classrooms together with no models for language learning or for following classroom routines. I don't think the state law intended such a consequence.
» Sorting children by ability levels might be grounds for legal challenges.
Sorting our youngest students into segregated classrooms based on ability/aptitude scores that are less than reliable and valid, and given at the beginning of their very first year of public school by an unfamiliar person, violates every ethical principle and position taken by all leading national educational associations -- the American Educational Research Association, National Association for the Education of Young Children, National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education, National Council on Measurement in Education and the National Association of School Psychologists, to name a few.
The evidence is overwhelming and consistent: Sorting young children by ability/aptitude test scores (often called "tracking") has a long history of not helping students and, in fact, often harms them. These youngsters are more likely to be retained, less likely to "catch up" academically and more likely to remain in low-level tracking classes for the rest of their school lives. Such a discriminatory practice has been subject to lawsuits in various states. Remember that IDEA1, the federal education act for individuals with disabilities, grew out of legal struggles to place children in the least restrictive and most beneficial learning environments. Do we really want to go backward and segregate our very youngest students on the basis of a single, unreliable test score? Not me -- and, I bet, not most parents.
If not this, then what?
Fortunately, Act 259, recently signed into law, establishes a position in the superintendent's office dedicated to early childhood education, along with some money for training the approximately 700 Department of Education kindergarten teachers and some 180 elementary school principals. If done well, this training will focus on best classroom and school practices for young children that create successful learning experiences. We already know what these developmentally appropriate practices are -- they're what good kindergarten teachers have been doing all along and what principals, knowledgeable in early childhood education, already support at their schools. If knowledge is power, then the training will empower resistance to the enormous "push down" pressure on schools from NCLB to treat and teach our kindergartners like third-graders. It's time to push back.
Mary E. Brandt is a developmental psychologist at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. She also is a former Head Start and kindergarten teacher.