Is readiness testing invalid?

“School readiness testing is in disrepute,” writes Lorrie A. Shepard,University of Colorado/Boulder.  Significant evidence of the misuse of readiness and screening tests to decide entry into school has been accumulating.  Shepard states that most of these tests lack the technical rigor to make accurate predictions of future success in school and there-fore should not be used to make placement decisions.

Beginning in the 1980s, prekindergarten tests were used to keep low-performing children out of school.  These are the children who most need learning opportunities, Shepard points out.  Once these children were excluded, kindergarten curriculum began to move away from the developmentally appropriate five-year-old readiness activities of a “children’s garden” and was replaced by more academic, paper-and-pencil tasks previously reserved for six and seven year olds.  As the curriculum accelerated, some parents began holding their children out for an additional year, to try to give them a social and academic advantage.  This resulted in larger numbers of older children entering kindergarten, further pushing teachers to advance curriculum while increasing the diversity of skills in the class, making normal five-year-olds seem unprepared and inadequate.  Educational reform efforts and accountability concerns further fueled the efforts to identify ‘at-risk’ children early and make schools more academically rigorous.

Screening tests identify specific needs

Shepard reports that the use of readiness and screening tests for school entrance decisions happened at the local level without research into its consequences. Two types of tests have been used, both inappropriate for the task, according to Shepard. Screening tests were intended to identify children with potential problems who might need further evaluation. These tests were never intended to be used for determining readiness for school or need for placement in a special class. They were intended as an efficient way to spot potential difficulties at an early stage. Screening tests differ from readiness tests, which were meant to be used by teachers to plan curriculum.  Readiness tests identify the specific skills children bring to class, so teachers can design targeted and effective curriculum.

Professional organizations like the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) began speaking out more than a decade ago about the misuse of these tests. But although inappropriate practices are decreasing, recent surveys indicate that all states have districts where such tests continue to be used routinely to deny children entry into kindergarten, or to place them in developmental kindergartens or transitional first grades. Shepard states that this is a form of tracking and that it disproportionately targets poor and minority children in the same way other tracking practices do.

Besides the sorting of students through prekindergarten testing and reform pressures for increasingly rigorous academics, other events pushed higher-grade curriculum into kindergartens and first grades. Over 50 percent of U.S. children now attend preschools and watch programs such as Sesame Street. These children enter school knowing how to count and recite the alphabet. Therefore, things that were once taught in kindergarten have now become prerequisites. In addition, because first-grade teachers are pressured to ensure that all students can read by the end of the year, they are reluctant to accept children who do not have adequate beginning reading skills.

Academic demands in escalation

This escalation of academic demands is detrimental, in Shepard’s opinion, because it leads to developmentally inappropriate teaching practices in these early grades.  Despite our knowledge of how children learn best at this age, curriculum began adapting to these pressures by becoming narrowly focused on isolated pre-reading and numeracy skills. Kindergartners were being asked to sit for long periods of time doing worksheets rather than being involved in active learning activities appropriate for their age that lead to language and conceptual development. Concrete, hands-on experiences take lots of time and as teachers felt pressured to cover more material, less time was given to such activities.

These practices further diminished the opportunities for normal five-year-olds to acquire needed skills. Many older students in the class had already had these experiences after years of preschool and were ready for more academic tasks. This served to widen the gulf between the younger, often poor and minority students and the older, middle-class students who had been held out for an extra year of preschool. It put the developmentally normal five-year-olds at further disadvantage.

The solution to this widening gap in kindergartners was increased kindergarten retention. Often couched as protecting unready children from high-pressure first grades, normally developing five-year-olds were given a second year in kindergarten or put in a transitional first grade. Some research indicated that the youngest first graders have lower achievement on average than the oldest ones, and this was used to support retention. Further analysis of this research, however, indicates that the advantage of age alone is quite small and disappears, on average, by third grade. Age combined with socio-economic factors produces a larger effect. This is what we began seeing in kindergartens in the 1980s.

Extra year doesn’t help

A summary of studies shows that there is essentially no difference in achievement between children who are retained for a year before first grade and other matched “unready” children who are allowed to go on without delay. And, although kindergarten retention is often encouraged for the emotional well-being of the child rather than for academic gain, this has not been adequately studied.

Summary of unintended consequences

In summary, Shepard states that entrance testing, retention and holding students out an extra year are counterproductive policies. The changes in kindergarten and first-grade curricula have evolved without serious debate or study. An unintended consequence is greater heterogeneity in kindergarten classes, making them more difficult to teach than before. There are great differences in the attention span and social skills of kindergartners barely five and those who are six-and-a-half. Statistically the differences in school achievement associated with social class are much greater than those associated with age within grade. Thus, normal five-year-olds from poor families are being put at a greater disadvantage if they enter school on time and compete with six-year-old middle-class students with three years of preschool experience. There is a tendency to teach to the upper half of the class and judge the lower half to be incompetent. In essence, this is an unidentified form of tracking. Also, retained students are seldom given appropriate, enriched curriculum; they either repeat the same curriculum or are drilled by rote on prerequisites to catch up.

Remedying the situation

The NAEYC and other professional groups stress two themes; developmentally appropriate curriculum and making school ready for the child rather than the child ready for school. The kinds of integrated and experienced-based activities that are appropriate for the learning needs of five- and six-year-olds have been described in NAEYC policy documents. Such developmentally appropriate curriculum recognizes both the average developmental level in a classroom and the large range of abilities that is a normal aspect of early development. They recommend, for example, that early childhood programs provide for “a wider range of developmental interests and abilities than the chronological age range would suggest.” They propose school entrance and early-grades promotion with no rejects.

Concerns cited by a coalition of early childhood professional organizations include:

1. Many pre-first-grade children are subjected to rigid, formal pre-reading programs with inappropriate expectations and experiences for their level of development.

2. Little attention is given to individual development or individual learning styles.

3. The pressures of accelerated programs do not allow children to experiment with language.

4. The pressure to achieve high scores on standardized tests that are not appropriate for the kindergarten child has resulted in changes in the content of programs. Program content often does not attend to the child’s social, emotional and intellectual development. Consequently, inappropriate activities that deny curiosity, critical thinking and creative expression occur all too frequently.

Testing issues

The validity of tests depends on the way they are used. Shepard emphasizes that many districts continue to use screening and readiness tests incorrectly, making their results invalid. In addition, testing young children is inherently less accurate than testing older children. Measures of cognitive abilities at this age are just not as accurate. Also, many of the people administering these tests do not have the formal training to interpret the results accurately. Finally, several of the tests being used are based on theories from the 1930s, which are no longer supported by current research.

Conclusions

Great efforts have been made in the last decade to correct misuses of school entrance tests. In addition, early childhood practitioners have reemphasized developmentally appropriate curriculum and instruction. If schools would return to a policy of admitting all five-year-olds to kindergarten and all six-year-olds to first grade, there would be less heterogeneity among students and it would be easier to target instruction effectively.

In states where developmental screenings or readiness tests are mandated, Shepard recommends careful adherence to the designed purpose of the test, as well as a focus on improving curriculum and staff development to ensure that schools are responsive to the diversity needs of students without judging any unready. Along with a move away from readiness testing to determine school entry, she recommends more efforts to create new forms of assessment in the early grades that are supportive of instruction. These tests should be designed to give direct evidence of students’ abilities to perform tasks in their normal instructional context? For example, reading a story, being able to retell it or listening to a story and making predictions about what will happen next.

“Children Not Ready To Learn? The invalidity of school readiness testing,” by Lorrie Shephard, Psychology in the Schools, Special Issue: School Readiness, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp. 85–97, April 1997.

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