High-Stakes Testing Slights Multiculturalsim
Matthew Henson is out, Christopher Columbus is in.By Makani Themba-Nixon
Spring 2000- rethinkingschools.org
As a parent active on a local school council, I've watched with apprehension as Virginia's high-stakes testing program has unfolded. But it was not until the day my third grade son, usually an enthusiastic student, came home sad and dejected that I realized my worst fears about the test were true.
My son's class was studying explorers - his favorite subject - and he wanted to write a report on Matthew Henson, his favorite explorer. Henson, an African American, was the first man to set foot on the North Pole. He was a self-taught sailor and astronome rwho rose above the racism and prejudice of his day to become one of the most important explorers of the 20th century.
Imagine my thrill as my son, without any urging on my part, went to the computer to do research on Henson. I was particularly pleased because after a tough first grade and difficulty reading throughout second grade, in third grade my son was at last learning that school could be fun.
While researching on the computer, my son took great delight in finding obscure facts about Henson. He fantasized out loud about how impressed his teachers and classmates would be once they saw his great report.
I had never seen him so excited about school work. He really identified with Henson, not only because he and Henson are both African Americans, which was clearly important to him, but also because he was excited about the opportunity to be an explorer himself. What excited him most was the novelty of the information and the fact that Henson wasn't one of the explorers the class as a whole was studying. As he said to me, "Mom, I'm being an explorer in social studies!"
When he turned in his report, he got a much different reaction than he expected. His teacher patiently explained that although his hard work was obvious and it was a great report, he would have to do another report on Christopher Columbus instead.
It turns out that Matthew Henson isn't on Virginia's high-stakes test, known as the Standards of Learning (SOL).
Like any mother, I called the teacher. I tried hard to be understanding. She said she felt bad about her decision and admitted that she knew what it meant to my son to be so excited about school. But, she rationalized, it wasn't her fault. She was trying to make sure he passed the Virginia test. After all, so much was on the line.
In that regard, she is right. The SOLs are high-stakes with winners and many more losers.
The tests, and the curriculum acrobatics schools undertake to adapt to them, literally determine what's important to know and what's not. Books, methods, and coursework that don't support test standards are thrown by the wayside. For example, students at my children's elementary school who do not meet SOLs in math must forego art classes for extra tutoring. And, of course, any historical figures that don't fit within the mostly white framework of the state standards are lost as well.
I worry about my children in this brave new world of high-stakes testing. How will they remain creative or sustain an interest in lifelong learning? Further, if the tests are to ensure that our students are better prepared, it's completely confounding that multicultural education is ignored in the development of learning standards.
The standards, in fact, are becoming quite standard - like a fast food franchise where everyone knows what to expect. And, like fast food, SOLs don't offer much in the way of nutrition or variety.
Makani Themba-Nixon is Executive Director of The Praxis Project, a nonprofit organization helping communities use media and policy advocacy to advance health equity and justice. Current projects include Policy Advocacy on Tobacco and Health (PATH)— a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Initiative to build tobacco control policy advocacy in communities of color; as well as numerous tools and resources that help people translate local problems into progressive, effective policy initiatives.
Testing Kindergarten: Young Children Produce Data—Lots of Data
Winter 2009-10-- rethinkingschools.org
By Kelly McMahon
You may not believe how many tests kindergartners take—and what they are missing as a result.
I remember my kindergarten experience from 25 years ago. Way back then, kindergarten focused on letters, sounds, counting, coloring inside the lines, cutting straight along the solid black line, and learning how to get along with others. I remember looking forward to rest time, recess, snack, and show and tell. That was kindergarten before the days of No Child Left Behind. Kindergarten post-No Child Left Behind is being turned into a school experience that results in many children disliking school and feeling like failures.
I have spent the last six years teaching 5-year-old kindergarten for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) in Milwaukee, Wis. During this time, I have seen a decrease in district initiatives that are developmentally appropriate, and an increase in the amount of testing and data collection for 5-year-olds. Just when I thought the district couldn’t ask for any more test scores or drills or practice, a new initiative and data system pops up for my school to complete. My school has not met our Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for the past three years. Due to our failure to meet AYP, we are now a School Identified for Improvement (SIFI), with Level Two status.
The students in my classroom during the 2008-09 school year completed more assessments than during any of my prior years of teaching kindergarten:
* Milwaukee Public Schools’ 5-Year-Old Kindergarten Assessment (completed three times a year)
* On the Mark Reading Verification Assessment (completed three times a year)
* A monthly writing prompt focused on different strands of the Six Traits of Writing
* 28 assessments measuring key early reading and spelling skills
* Chapter pre- and post-tests for all nine math chapters completed
* Three additional assessments for each math chapter completed
* A monthly math prompt
* Four Classroom Assessments Based on Standards (CABS) per social studies chapter (20 total)
* Four CABS assessments per science chapter (20 total)
* Four CABS assessments per health chapter (20 total)
I recently learned that my students will also be expected to complete four benchmark assessments beginning in the 2010-11 school year.
This list does not include the pre- and post-Marzano vocabulary tests (which I refuse to have my students complete because the assessment design is entirely developmentally inappropriate) or the writing and math portfolios we are required to keep.
Last spring, the literacy coach at my school handed us a copy of the new MPS Student Reading Portfolio, which includes a list of 10 academic vocabulary words per semester that kindergartners are expected to know. My students will once more have to complete pre- and post-tests each semester. When I brought the MPS Student Reading Portfolio to the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association’s (MTEA) Early Childhood Committee, the members were surprised and disgusted. This new reading portfolio asks kindergarten students to define terms like Venn diagram, sound out, understand, poetry, tracking, sight word, expression, and describe; it also expects kindergartners to produce 20 different sounds, including the blending and digraph sounds ch, qu, sh, th, and ing at a proficient level. This developmentally inappropriate assessment tool was designed without the input of early childhood educators. The MTEA Early Childhood Committee submitted our comments and recommendations for proposed changes to both the MPS Reading and Early Childhood Departments. We have yet to hear a response.
Kindergartners Need to Play
One negative impact of continued assessment-crazy data collection on my school has been the total disregard for the importance of children’s social and emotional development. As more and more of my students spend less time interacting with their peers outside of school, I am forced to severely limit the amount of time dedicated to play centers in my classroom. Without the opportunity to interact with their peers in structured and unstructured play, my students are losing out on situations that allow them to learn to problem-solve, share, explore, and deepen their learning.
As Edward Almon and Joan Miller point out in their book Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, “Research shows that children who engage in complex forms of socio-dramatic play have greater language skills than nonplayers, better social skills, more empathy, more imagination, and more of the subtle capacity to know what others mean. They are less aggressive and show more self-control and higher levels of thinking.”
Apparently young children stopped learning through play the moment the bipartisan No Child Left Behind bill passed Congress and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
Sleepless in Milwaukee
The issue of allowing young children in kindergarten to rest has now become a battle all across MPS. Last year MPS issued a guideline for rest time for early childhood programs. The district guidelines proposed a maximum 45-minute rest time in the fall for all day 4-year-old kindergarten, followed by a maximum of 30 minutes’ rest in the spring. The guidelines suggested a maximum of 30 minutes to be used for rest in the fall in 5-year-old kindergarten classrooms, and for rest to be entirely phased out in the spring.
These policies fly in the face of brain research, which suggests that sleep allows the brain to cement the learning that has taken place. As Merilee Sprenger writes in her book Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action:
Through prior knowledge or interest, the new information may be added to the old and form more long-term memory. The process may have to be repeated several times before long-term memory is formed. The brain will process some of this information during sleep. Studies have shown that while rats are in the sleep stage called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, their brains reproduce the same patterns used for learning while awake.
But MPS insists that I wake up a sleeping child who might have only gotten five or six hours of sleep each night.
My administrators have allotted my students 20 minutes of rest time each day for the 2009-10 school year. However, by the time my students finish using the restroom and get a drink of water after their one and only recess for the day, they will have roughly 10 minutes to rest. Every year I have at least one child in my classroom who is not getting adequate sleep every night.
There was a young boy in my classroom last year who went to daycare directly from school and stayed there until 11 p.m. By the time his mother picked him up, drove home, and gave him a snack, it would be 1 a.m. before he finally got to bed. This child would then be up roughly five hours later to start his day all over again. He entered my classroom exhausted and in need of additional sleep. When he allowed himself to fall asleep at rest time, it was nearly impossible to wake him.
When district officials came into my classroom, I had to defend my professional judgment in allowing this child to continue to sleep after I began afternoon instruction. I have multiple students in my classroom this year with similar sleeping schedules at home, yet they are allowed only 10 minutes for rest. I am experiencing far more behavioral problems in the afternoon this school year due to the decrease in time my students are allowed to rest.
As I enter my eighth year of teaching in Milwaukee, I’m left wondering how much more testing and data collection I might be expected to do, and how many more developmentally inappropriate initiatives I will be asked to implement. I also wonder exactly how much longer I can continue to “teach” under these circumstances.
Miller, Edward & Joan Almon. Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School. College Park, MD: Alliance for Childhood, 2009.
Sprenger, Merilee. Learning and Memory: The Brain in Action. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999.
Kelly McMahon teaches 5-year-old kindergarten for Milwaukee Public Schools. She served as co-chair of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association Early Childhood Committee.