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Jerusha Connor, a professor of education at Villanova University, was shocked to see what happened to her daughter on her first day of kindergarten: Most of the few hours of school were spent on assessment by five different teachers.
For anyone who doubts that education in the U.S. has become overrun by testing, consider this. My daughter’s first day of kindergarten — her very first introduction to elementary school — consisted almost entirely of assessment. She was due at school at 9:30, and I picked her up at 11:45. In between, she was assessed by five different teachers, each a stranger, asking her to perform some task such as cutting, coloring in the lines, reciting her address and phone number, identifying letters and their sounds, and counting. She then had to wait two days, while all the other incoming kindergartners were assessed, to learn of her teacher and begin the school year in earnest.
From an educator’s point of view, this approach makes good sense. Determine what it is that kids know. Then use that baseline knowledge to assemble a class.
But this was an intimidating initiation from a child’s perspective. Usually an outgoing and independent girl, my daughter was clingy and nervous on her first day of kindergarten. When I asked how she was feeling as we approached the front door of the building, she said she did not want to go to school. She did not have any friends yet. She did not know her way around the building. She worried that there would be too many people. What if her teachers were mean? What if kids made fun of her when they heard her name? What if she had to use the restroom? She was a bundle of nerves. I’m sure this testing scenario did little to quell her concerns. I have no doubt that however she was assessed, she did not perform from a place of confidence or comfort. Even under less trying circumstances, such one-shot assessments are of questionable validity.
Indeed, by the time I picked her up, she had not relaxed at all. She did not want to talk about what she had done in school, but she did say that she did not want to go back. She did not know the teachers’ names. She did not make any friends. Later that afternoon, as she played with her animals in her room, I overheard her drilling them on their numbers and letters.
She and her husband were saddened by their daughter’s experience.
My husband and I will do our best to help her unlearn what she learned about school on her first day: that it is a place where you are judged for what you know — not how eager you are to learn; that performance matters more than understanding or inquiry; that schoolwork is hard and uninteresting. We will work with her teacher (whomever he or she is) to ensure that the strengths she brings to kindergarten — curiosity, compassion and creativity — are recognized and nurtured. We will encourage her love of learning and her self-confidence; I just wish we did not have to work against the school system in doing so.
Our educational system’s drive to assess, to label and sort kids, to make decisions on the basis of data of dubious quality has gone too far, and it is time for a course correction. We must remember that “data” are social constructions, shaped by the circumstances under which they are obtained. And just as these circumstances affect the nature of the information we collect, they have bearing on other things that matter, such as a child’s first impressions of school. I submit that these impressions matter more than any purported snapshot of a child’s abilities.
The reformers’ obsession with testing is harmful to children.