Standardized testing in the primary grades

In 1976, the Association for Childhood Education (ACEI) issued a position paper calling for a moratorium on standardized testing in the early years of school. The Association’s purpose was to encourage serious discussion of the effects of testing and to encourage the pursuit of classroom assessment options that would help teachers teach more effectively, and that would take into account childhood development.

Vito Perrone, Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, agrees with the ACEI position. He believes that testing is problematic at all grade levels, but particularly so in the primary grades, when a child’s growth is most uneven and idiosyncratic.

Beginning with pre-kindergarten screening, which is used to keep out of school for an additional year those students who don’t appear ready, and testing during kindergarten which determines whether a child should be promoted to first grade, Perrone believes that testing is overused and detrimental.

Form of tracking

Standardized testing in the primary grades is responsible, he argues, for labeling large numbers of poor and minority students. Such widespread use of standardized testing in the early grades is a form of tracking, a practice which has been shown to have negative effects. Traditionally, annual testing has been used for promotion decisions or to determine a child’s eligibility for a wide range of special programs and services. This, despite the fact that group-administered standardized achievement tests were not designed and, indeed, are not able to tell us much about an individual child’s performance.

While standardized testing is supposed to provide teachers with knowledge about their students’ skills and deficits, most teachers polled state that these tests provide little useful information about individual children or classroom learning and, therefore, do not help them teach more effectively. Yet, teachers reports that they feel pressure to teach to tests. This pressure takes time from teaching and, in effect, restricts the range of instructional materials and content in their classrooms. Perrone concludes that standardized tests limit educational possibilities for many children.

The ACEI continues to call for a moratorium on all standardized testing in grades K-2, and also calls for an end to administering standardized tests to every child throughout the elementary years.

Need for alternative evaluations

At the same time, however, it affirms the importance of alternative evaluations in classrooms and schools, and contends that careful evaluation is the key to “the qualitative improvement of educational practice and the learning of children.” In order to evaluate programs rather than individuals, the ACEI has suggested using standardized achievement tests with samples of students rather than testing every child. The money saved in this way could be used to administer more authentic, open-ended, performance-oriented assessments that take more time, cost more and demand more materials.

The ACEI is not alone in calling for a reduction in standardized testing. After five years of intense study, the National Commission on Testing and Public Policy reached similar conclusions. There is evidence, the Commission noted, that school curriculums are being driven by mandatory tests and that education is being reduced to worksheets, simple skill practice and rote learning. The fact that some test scores are rising, the Commission found, is not proof of increased learning.

Perrone supports classroom-based assessment through the carefully organized and systematic documentation of students’ work. Reviewing a student’s work periodically helps teachers teach individual children by adjusting instruction to meet their needs. Students, Perrone suggests, can be included in this review process, thereby learning to examine and assess their own performance. Long-term records are also very helpful for parents.

Documenting learning

Perrone writes that in his experience, teachers who make a practice of documenting children’s learning in this way tend to be more knowledgeable about children and learning. These teachers become “students of teaching.” Articulate about the progress of their students, they are trusted by parents and are thus able to establish that important link between school and the home.

In summary, the ACEI position paper stresses the inappropriateness of standardized testing in the primary grades, as well as the yearly testing of every child in subsequent years. These tests are not accurate measures of individual achievement, are of little benefit to teachers and can have harmful effects. Authentic, performance-based assessment in the classroom should replace the overload of standardized tests currently being administered.

“On Standardized Testing” Childhood Education, Spring 1991, Volume 67, Number 3, p. 132-142.

Published in ERN September/October 1991 Volume 4 Number 4


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