Voices from the Field

Defending the Early Years has been collecting stories from early childhood professionals from across the nation. These “Voices from the Field” are shared here to help illustrate the negative impact current policies are having on quality education for young children.

For one teacher’s thoughts on how Writer’s Workshop has changed under the Common Core, click here.

Here is a blog post from Phyllis Doerr – a kindergarten teacher from New Jersey: Testing in K: Too much, too soon.

A NYC public school teacher told us,

    “I am heartbroken to see what is happening to myself and many of my colleagues here in NYC. I am being forced to shove academics down the throats of 4,5 and 6 year old children. They have no recess or gym. I used to be proud of my teaching – now I feel that I am being forced to do wrong by my students every day… After 21 years of teaching in Early Childhood all I can say is I am deeply sad.”

We asked early childhood professionals whether or not the tests they are required to give are appropriate for the developmental level of their children. Many teachers responded, “No” and then told us why…

Here is what a first grade teacher from California told us:

    “Our district is now requiring us to give first grade students what they call a ‘benchmark’ test three times per year. This ‘benchmark’ is actually a summative evaluation. It is the same test all three times. We are supposed to administer all of the pages at the close of each semester. This is in addition to the testing we are required to do to report to the parents on the ‘standards-based’ report cards. All in all testing takes at least a month. It must be administered over a period of time, due to the sheer number of tests a child must complete one-on-one with an adult. Since this is the Summative Test, here is just one example from my classroom: Children are asked to read end of the year ‘grade-level’ texts in November. Each of the two reading selections has 5 multiple-choice questions attached to it, supposedly covering the California Content Standards in Comprehension. One of my kids scored proficient, yet did not know letter sounds or sight words. Lucky student, I’d say! That’s one possible outcome of this type of testing. A handful of kids could read this test, and felt ok about it. These kids were, nonetheless, quite nervous because they figured out it was a test. They knew they were expected to ‘perform’. The majority of kids could not read it but they learned that if you don’t understand a test, just fill in a bubble so you might score proficient. This type of testing shows the children that we don’t value or respect their learning needs or their intelligence. Not only is the test inappropriate, but in administering the test, we are no longer meeting their needs for stimulation and guided learning throughout the school day. We are just testing. And testing. And testing.”

We heard from many other teachers as well…

    “Children under the age of 8 are not reliable test takers.  Their development is uneven and their response to and understanding of the testing expectations are quite variable from child to child, day to day and during the day.  Tests do not adequately evaluate learning styles, social and emotional development, physical development, etc.  They narrow the curriculum to primarily literacy (mostly reading in the early years) and math.”
    “A one size fits all model is not appropriate for a classroom of 26 kids.  There are WAY too many diverse learners and abilities to just present that type of model.”
    “We do not use curriculum or tests in our center, but I believe that testing of young children is totally inappropriate. Because of our philosophy we will not be a part of QRIS. This means that we will never take state of federal money which will limit our ability to offer vouchers.  Fortunately we are a laboratory school, a part of the psychology department in a small liberal arts college, so we do not have to abide by all of the standards that are being proposed.  We try to have parents understand our reasons for not becoming accredited and we may lose some children as a result, but we strongly believe that what is happening to children today is wrong. Children should be playing and developing social skills, not being tested or pressured to learn to read or do form math at the preschool level.”
    “If developmental norms state that a child is not expected to have a certain ability and we as educators are forcing them to learn things they are not ready for, it causes frustration, tuning out and at times behavioral issues for children when they become frustrated attempting to perform or understand things that are too high for them and things that science states they are not developmentally ready to perform in the first place. They grow to dislike school from day one!   Would you as a first time skier go up on the gondola to the top of the mountain and be expected to ski down a black diamond ski slope and then expect to enjoy skiing or would you be frustrated? No you have to learn and master the building blocks and have the foundation skills that are appropriate for your level. Children need to learn to sit and attend first …and they won’t be interested in doing that skill if the demand is over their expected developmental ability level.”
    “Children at this age should not be ‘tested’, as it immediately limits their thinking.  It scares them and makes them think there is only one right answer.  It does not account for where they are developmentally OR where they are THAT day.  Children should be encouraged to be creative and dream, no matter how wild the idea appears to adults.  We should follow them instead of the other way round.”
    “I believe the tests are given too often and too much emphasis is given to them. I would prefer that more emphasis be place on teachers actually assessing the learning of their own students and adjusting instruction accordingly, rather than having all the students in the school go through 1 minute speed screenings with other adults and then having the results compiled, posted and compared with other teachers’ scores. Often, there is a cut-off score that supposedly indicates the need for RTI in some students. I don’t always agree with this.”
    “I don’t believe standardized tests are a good way to measure children’s learning at this age.  There are bursts of learning that occur as a concept is mastered. It happens at the child’s pace, not the teachers pace. This is not fair of young children.”
    “I teach preschool special education.  I understand the need to collect data, and the value in determining each child’s abilities and skill levels.  The tests were normed on ‘typical’ population, and always make my students appear below/behind/etc.  Each child has strengths and parents need to know what their child’s strengths are, as well as the areas in need of improvement.  Usually when we review evaluations it is a long list of ‘your child could not_____’ .”
    “Many questions on the test can be confusing to young children and mandate that only one answer is acceptable.  It forces the teachers to make sure that the children know very specific words and how to answer questions.  I don’t believe that we should be so narrow minded with our children.”
    “Oh…let me count the ways….!!    Children learn best by being actively involved in their learning. Testing requires them to sit and use paper and pencil. These children do not yet completely understand the symbolism of letters yet and NEED to PLAY so they can use their imaginations to pretend that concrete objects represent their ideas first and then when they are ready, they can document their ideas first with drawings and then with letters and writing. There is a natural learning process which standardized testing does not even recognize or respect.”
    “A child having an ‘off’ day, lack of interest, or not able to remain engaged in the test will give a false assessment.  Observation and anecdotal records of children’s play provides a much better understanding of the child’s developmental skills.”
    “Some of the tests are end of level tests given all year long.  Students are repeatedly exposed to concepts they haven’t been taught yet.  This creates a sense of failure for them…they learn to just guess because they don’t know what they haven’t been taught.    The language on many tests is too difficult for students of poverty and English Language Learners.  I would say 90% of the time if I was allowed to rephrase the question in simpler English the students would get the answer correct.  But I’m not allowed to do that.  This is a form of discrimination against these groups of students–particularly in math where language shouldn’t have much if anything to do with their scores.”
    “The Kindergarten Readiness Screening has too many pictures on the page (with different colored jpeg images, rather than black and white outline drawings like on the standardized Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test). The pictures are too small, and it’s too distracting to have so many on each page. I believe the formatting of the assessment is not accurately assessing children’s knowledge of the language.”
    “The tests are ‘sit and get’ assessments.  They are not evidence of what the children can do in their natural environment, are not available to be used for planning, and, even though we try to avoid it, provide focus for classroom instruction.  It is not meaningful to the children nor do the tests represent their growth.”
    “The tests gather data about discrete skills – research shows that early proficiency in these skills does not indicate later proficiency or even impart ongoing proficiency.”
    “They are being asked to name letters and the corresponding sounds before they have had time to be instructed.   They are required to sound out words and recognize sight words before most are ready. They must periodically reach a certain pre-determined reading level no matter what their individual abilities are.”
    “Timed tests that have a child read letters and words that they have not been taught yet sets them up to feel like a failure at the very FIRST WEEK OF SCHOOL!!!!! Then they are placed into groups where scripted lessons are given, every single day in the most repetitious and boring of circumstances. It’s horrifying and demeaning to children and teachers. Math tests that are simply ridiculous and made up by administrators that don’t work or know young children…just to get scores…”
    “The children I work with are 3,4 and 5 years old. They don’t understand. Many times when saying a word and having a child point to a given picture out of a grouping of four, the child finds a different picture more interesting and wants to talk about it. They then point to that picture (the wrong one). I have to mark down that they got it wrong, but yet I know, from dealing with the child, that the child knows the word but didn’t want to point to it.”
    “The corporations who created those tests know nothing about E.C. or learning.”
    “Young children need more attention, not less.  They need adults to listen to what they have to say, to hear what’s going on in their lives, to care.  When the test proctor is more concerned about completing the questions which all come from sources unknown, sources claiming to be about the best interests of children who they don’t know, it sends the message that tests are more important than relationships and that’s a lie.  Testing sends the message that choosing the one right answer out of three or four possibilities is more important that asking questions oneself, exploring ideas, developing skills that are meaningful now, and being creative.”

In many instances, experienced teachers are choosing to leave the field rather than participate in harmful practices. This story from a former Detroit public school teacher helps to illustrate why:

    “Young children need more attention, not less. They need adults to listen to what they have to say, to hear what’s going on in their lives, to care. When the test proctor is more concerned about completing the questions which all come from sources unknown, sources claiming to be about the best interests of children who they don’t know, it sends the message that tests are more important than relationships and that’s a lie. Testing sends the message that choosing the one right answer out of three or four possibilities is more important that asking questions oneself, exploring ideas, developing skills that are meaningful now, and being creative. I used to teach bilingual kindergarten in Detroit Public Schools, Michigan, at Harms Elementary. Unfortunately, because Detroit is completely broke, it has been prey to terrible cronyism, corruption, and education ‘deforms’ such as closing scores of low-scoring schools, either abandoning them or turning them into charters. On every street there are hulks of burned out houses, vacant lots, and disinvestment. At every freeway corner are people with signs begging for help. In this environment, test scores literally translate to life or death for the foundation of the communities: the traditional neighborhood school, with all that implies for students and staff.”

She goes on to say:

    “My education and experience in early childhood and bilingual education tells me it’s all wrong and even harmful in the long run. So, while the school where I taught since January 2005 has high ratings from high test scores, I chose not to reapply for my job there.”

Stay tuned to hear from other early childhood professionals who are on the front lines – working everyday to support the rights and needs of young children.

More Voices from the Field: Updated July 2013

We asked teachers, “Have the demands changed since you began teaching? If yes, please describe changes in demands.” Here are some responses:

Everything that is taught is taught [at] an earlier age. It is frightening to see what is expected of young students. I became a teacher because I loved school. I wanted children to love school as well. When I talk to young children and ask them what they like about school, so many say “I hate school.” This comes from many kindergarten children. That is very sad. If you love school at any time you should definitely LOVE being in Kindergarten. There is so much pressure to “learn” things that their brains and development are not ready for. It causes so much frustration. More and more I have seen terrible behavioral issues in Kindergarten.

We have gone from a curriculum where kids play to learn to a more rigorous curriculum where kids are expected to do things that 1st graders used to be expected to do. The expectations have gone from knowing some letters and sounds to having to read at a certain level. This is so sad and I fight every day for a curriculum that is more appropriate f or 5 year olds. I am very discouraged and am changing schools to try and get to a place where I can teach 5 year olds the way I was trained to teach them.

The demands of structured learning have weighed heavily on our program within the last five years. Thankfully we have a principal that fights against the standardization of preschool learning and believes/supports developmentally appropriate practices f or our young children. The district has tried to create curriculum for our preschool program reflective of the structure seen in Kindergarten (tragic), but the principal continues to educate leaders in our district about what research tells us about early development. If not for that, our preschool would be the type of inappropriate environment research warns against. We are required to teach to standards, but our program maintains flexibility for creativity and critical thinking. Our goal is for each child to discover his/her love for learning.

As a Pre-K teacher I feel that the demands have changed for both the teacher and the student. As the teacher I find that my teaching has become more teach to the test/assessment and not as much teaching to the content or interests of my students. That teaching is not developmentally appropriate for the children in the early years.

There is so much paperwork that the ability to spend time developing engaging lessons for students is diminished. Testing has increased. Furthermore, a majority of tests that are given are not developmentally appropriate which makes their scores/data worthless.

The demands in the kindergarten classrooms have changed greatly. We are expected to have all children reading by the end of kindergarten, even though we all know that some children are not developmentally ready to read at 5 years old. We are expected to teach first or even second grade curriculum to our 5 year olds, with one teacher and no assistant. At my school we are expected to use our parent volunteers if we want help in the classroom to work with children who need a little extra help to succeed.

We asked teacher to respond to the following statement: “My students have adequate time for play and exploration at school.”

Here are some of their comments:

More and more structure in the classroom leaves little time for play and exploration. The classroom has become a minute by minute structure for direct instruction. Worse is the fact that teachers are testing continually .

While I provide for those opportunities, I am not comfortable with the amount of time I am able to give them to do this. Many K teachers in my district have been forced to eliminate blocks, dramatic play, sensory tables, etc. I would ref use to do this and would quit before I would compromise my beliefs and understanding of how young children learn best.

When teachers in my district bring this to the attention of administrators for discussion, we “get our hands slapped”. After thirty plus years of teaching, I am currently working at least twelve hour day s in an attempt to plan in such a way that I can provide time for my students to have opportunities for play and exploration as well as the lessons I am mandated to teach. Every day staff comments on how they can’t do this much longer, as it goes against every belief we have in teaching young children.

We spend the majority of the day testing one way or another.

My kindergarten students are expected to already know all letters and sounds on top of nearly 100 sight words. We are lucky to explore/play for 15 minutes a day!

I teach Kindergarten and my students only have 10 minutes of recess a day. They are in school from 8:30 – 3:30, and they only have 10 minutes to play outside! I try to schedule at least 15 minutes of free play at the end of the day, but this often gets pushed out by math and reading lessons.

We asked teacher to respond to the following statement: “I am required to engage in teaching activities that are not developmentally appropriate for my students.”

Here are some of their comments:

Requiring children to be able to identify all letters before leaving pre-k, especially when we have some very young students leaving pre-k due to a very late kindergarten cutoff date (December 31) is not a developmentally appropriate expectation. Yes, many children are capable of accomplishing this, but many other children are not.

I taught pre- kindergarten for 10 years. I saw it go from a learning through play curriculum to academic curriculum. Pressure to read in pre-k. I saw teachers that use to share and enjoy each other and different ideas turn on each other. It was and is very sad.

By forcing All my kindergarten children to engage in reading activities above their level, I am affecting at least half of the class that is not interested nor ‘there’ yet in their own developmental process. I have kept the block, sand table, easel/ art section and the drama/housekeeping centers in my room, but kids don’t have access ’til the last hour in the day —after we have covered the district’s expected standards (Common Core).

Kindergarten students are being forced to write words, sentences, paragraphs before having a grasp of oral language, before being able to speak to their opinions, are being expected to write (oh- “with support” of course) in response to a text or document. We are assessing them WEEKLY on how many sight words, letter sounds, and letter names they can identify. And we’re assessing the “neediest” students’ reading every other day.

As a 3rd grade teacher, I spend more than 3 months of the y ear explicitly teaching test-taking strategies and administering practice tests.

seems as if most decisions are based on what is good for the testing grades and the remainder must comply also – no attention is paid to the huge differences between primary children and intermediate children

Since when do all five year olds have abstract thinking skills, the ability to sit and do paper/pencil tasks f or long periods of time, need to read at DRA level 4, etc. Don’t even get me started! Our district has seen a large increase in serious negative behaviors, yet do not want to look at the correlation between this and our increased expectations. Instead, we suspend five and six year olds.

Even the Federal Govt acknowledges that standardized testing is inappropriate below third grade. Our state tests 2nd graders. First graders in our school district are required to take similarly designed “Benchmark” tests three times per year that span a 4 day period each time. That’s 12 day s/year of wasted, frustrating time. The tests take all morning and the kids are fried and frustrated by the afternoon. Some of them cry.

To a point this is true. Because I teach pre k in the public school I do try to honor and teach some things that might not be developmentally appropriate. I attempt to honor some things the receiving kindergarten teachers feel are important. Keeping in mind while these kindergarten teachers do not believe their curriculum is developmentally appropriate. They feel it is too academic and not enough time for play or social skills to be taught.

We asked teacher to respond to the following statement: “I am required to use assessments that are not developmentally appropriate for my students.”

Here are some of their comments:

I just gave a math test that asked second graders to look at a picture of a juice pitcher and a cup. They had to make a best guess of how many cups the pitcher had in capacity. I couldn’t even begin to guess because of the 2 dimensional quality of the picture. Although, I can reason a cup is eight ounces and that the biggest pitcher (like the one shown) only holds about 8 cups. THE ANSWER WAS 15. Then it proceeded to ask them which object would hold about 10 pitchers of water. The choices: a sink, a clawfoot tub, or a jar (of undetermined size). Math units that teach the kids to measure in nonstandard one inch tiles but use triangular units on the assessments. Many of the assessments use pictures that are in black and white and the kids would only be able to answer the question if it was in color.

In October, I was told to administer our district’s version of the ELA. I was told the children had to read all the questions independently . Some couldn’t even write their names yet were asked to read and answer questions like: What does the illustrator do?

Yes and no. With so much attention on letter recognition and ready readiness, teachers feel the stress of ensuring children leave knowing letters and some sounds. This forces many teachers to assess these skills that children may or may not be ready f or. It also makes the parents f eel stressed if their child does not know the letters. I always assure them that they will learn these important concepts when they are developmentally ready. I always feel like I’m lying to the parents when I say, “It’s okay. Your child is so bright and articulate. They will grasp these concepts when they are ready .” because I know that won’t be acceptable on day one of Kindergarten. That’s just wrong!!!!

I am forced to do the dreaded DIBELS assessment three times a year. I do my best to integrate bits of test prep (test taking as a genre) in as meaningful a way as possible. I also work hard to do individual assessments that I can share with my principal that more accurately and holistically assess my children on reading.

Not only are they developmentally inappropriate but they also seem to be narrowed to right and wrong answers rather than more open ended questions that require different possible answers that could be explained and reasoned.

why are we not using developmental assessments????

AIMSWEB – the focus is on speed. Even my students who know 100% of their letters and sounds “fail” this assessment because they do no say them fast enough!

Some assessment used for my pre-K class the administrator wants me to use kindergarten assessment bi-weekly for their records. I believe they do this to know what level the children will be once they start kindergarten. This is inappropriate and it stress the children.

Last year we were informed that every three weeks our students will have to take fill in the bubble ELA tests. I formed a committee to talk with district level administrators about how the tests were: A waste of time to administer as all have 1-on-1 interviews as well. A waste of paper. Were not rigorous. Didn’t align with CCSS. Not valid indicators of student achievement. Didn’t align with our report cards. Isn’t applying higher order thinking which is constantly demanded of us. At that point in time we had to administer the tests three times a year, and it was a waste of time then as over 90% of the class got over a 90% on the test. And we aren’t going to use the tests next year because they are getting rid of the ELA curriculum.

Especially now that we use the Common Core Standards. I had to assess my first graders on missing addends when they could barely do regular addition problem–in the first few weeks of school. Totally inappropriate. Plus they have to take pencil/paper TESTS.