No Standardized Testing in Early Grades

The Evidence Is In:

By Vito Perrone

In 1976, the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) called for a moratorium on all standardized testing in the early school years. It also affirmed the importance of evaluation in classrooms and schools, acknowledging careful evaluation as the key “to the qualitative improvement of all education practice and the learning of all children.”

We now believe firmly that no standardized testing should occur in preschool and K-2 years. Further, we question the need to test every child in the remaining elementary years. We see growing understanding that teaching to tests increasingly has become the curriculum in many schools, especially in the early years when test scores are most affected by such direction.

Increasing test scores no longer cause much celebration. We have mounting evidence that curriculum is becoming a matter of worksheets, workbooks, and simple skills; higher-order thinking skills and deeper levels of understanding are sacrificed; reading for meaning is set aside; the arts are becoming nonexistent; exploration of real materials, the science and mathematics of the world, isn’t “risked”; and time for play, what most teachers and parents understand to be the work of children, is seen as a frill.

Such understandings have brought growing realization that curriculum in many schools is not powerful enough, that it doesn’t lead to large understandings or commitments to extended learning. And teachers are becoming more vocal about wanting opportunities to create more thoughtful and expansive curriculum. They are making clear that they know how to address accountability through good documentation of children’s actual work rooted in a solid and generative curriculum.

The need is to engage in assessment that is not only related to the best practice, but also rooted directly in the instructional process. While many possible entry points to such assessment exist, we share first the way a group of elementary teachers in New York City responded to a new city-wide science test in grades 3 and 5. We believe the example is instructive for other assessment areas and other grades.

These teachers argued that the test (not science assessment itself) was inappropriate. It covered too much too superficially and didn’t get close enough to what children actually knew and understood; didn’t honor their slower, more intense, meaning-making, hands-on, observational, and experience-oriented approaches; and was a distraction when serious science inquiry was becoming well established.

With a research psychologist, the teachers developed a science assessment that used the district’s objectives and the questions on the city-wide test, but made the questions open-ended to demonstrate the larger possibilities in a less-restricted assessment format. The teachers and the researcher didn’t argue that their questions were wonderful, fully generative, or connected to many of the issues they believed were critical. They concluded, however, that their open-ended process provided information more useful to their instruction and got closer to children’s understandings than the city-wide test.

Assessment for purposes that go beyond the school — what most accountability efforts are about — need not have an individual, every-student basis. More open-ended, performance-based processes that

take more time and materials would likely be seen as more feasible if sampling were used. Sampling could also involve teachers much more directly, making assessment more than a process “owned and operated” by some distant bureaucracy.

Work in writing represents the most serious break yet in the power of standardized testing. Those concerned about writing argue that it cannot be assessed validly outside the instructional process and that writing to a real audience is central. Further, they assert that writing at its best is situated — in this sense, not easily standardized.

Understanding Writing

Understanding children’s writing cannot begin with one task, a single piece of work, or writing that is not completed within the norms of powerful classroom practice. Such writing isn’t likely to bring forth students’ best efforts. That understanding alone has changed the assessment landscape enormously. Teachers who encourage active writing programs make clear that serious writing takes thought and time, is close to personal experience or interest, and connects to an individual’s way of interpreting the world. Children write what they know and feel about their world — understandings that extend to all curricular areas.

Teachers recognize that children have much more to talk and write about in settings where school experience is rich; teachers read a great deal to children, emphasizing authorship and personal style; books are plentiful; active learning is promoted; the world is permitted to intrude. In this sense, writing is not something apart; it has a context that is important to understanding it. Most writing assessments provide little knowledge of contextual issues.

Experience has shown that the best person to judge students’ writing is the teacher closest to them. The teacher knows, for example, the questions a child has been raising about various aspects of classroom learning. When reading a piece of writing, the teacher can refer to previous writing, a book the child is reading, genres of authors the child is most inclined toward, a painting just completed, a trip recently taken, the new baby sister, the spring flooding in the community, the special meadow colors, the classroom’s human mosaic. Thoughtfully responding to the surrounding context, the teacher can better interpret the writing.

The teacher, deeply involved with the child as writer, knows the next question to raise, when to push and when not to, and can judge the meaning and quality of that child’s writing. This outlook governs our perspective about evaluation issues.

What Makes Good Writing

We have seen creative and energetic writing in large numbers of elementary schools with active writing programs. As we read the wonderful writing, knowing that each piece was completed over time — not at one sitting, not without conversation, not without several tries, not without some peer response and early teacher response — we wonder what would have been produced had these writers been forced to write on April 1 at 10:00 a.m., knowing they had 30 minutes and the readers would be far away. Actually, we don’t wonder too much. We have seen the writing and it isn’t the same. We talk with enough teachers to know that they don’t believe what students produce on those days represents anything approximating their best work. Many, often the most skilled writers, leave much of the writing assessment page blank.

Teachers, who honor children’s work as the genuine product of thought, capable of evoking thought, can certainly describe students’ writing. They are authentic readers. And they have been convincing in their view that any talk of assessment is doomed intellectually if it doesn’t acknowledge the importance of being close to students and the surrounding context.

So where does this lead us? Having acknowledged the centrality of the classroom setting, the classroom teacher, and work over time, we are convinced the principal direction is rooted in carefully organized and considered classroom documentation. Teachers can systematically preserve copies of drafts of students’ writings as well as finished pieces. Two to three pieces a month would provide a reasonable collection.

Periodic review can inform a teacher’s ongoing efforts to assist particular students, an important purpose of documentation. At year’s end, the accumulation can be carefully reviewed, often providing a perspective missed in addressing work that stands alone. Such a portfolio is almost always enormously revealing to parents, bringing the kind of overview that they often miss as they interact with their children about school experience.

Classroom review addresses concerns about ongoing support of individual students and informs further instructional practice. It is a way for a teacher to describe children’s growth as writers, as well as inform their subsequent teacher more fully. And students learn to bring careful self-examination and more solid interpretation to their own efforts as writers.

Providing a Context

For larger school-wide review, randomly selected students might be asked to choose five or six pieces of their writing to be read by groups of teachers — providing the readers with a context of the individual works. Using such samples — knowing that they were written within the instructional program and not in a forced, unsituated exercise — provides readers with more confidence about describing, for example, the writing of fourth-graders.

Further, as a “community of readers of writing,” teachers in this review can actually enlarge their understandings, in the process becoming better teachers and facilitators of writing. If the evaluation doesn’t produce these kinds of results, it is quite clearly a failed and faulty exercise.

Having argued that the best evaluation is classroom and school based, it is still possible to extend the logic of making use of multiple samples, embedded in best practice, to a school system, where a community of readers linked to shared beliefs can be formed. With each step from the classroom, however, confidence levels must begin to decline.

We want to share an assessment effort conducted by a district that is moving in a more positive direction. In Grand Forks,

North Dakota, the superintendent agreed to experiment with classroom-based, instructionally-oriented writing assessment planned by teachers. Grade 6 was selected as the focus. Teachers began by examining samples of children’s writing.

They learned about the diverse ways sixth-grade teachers worked with writing and became deeply involved in a workshop approach to teaching writing. Documenting their practices, reflecting together on their experiences, and reading work produced by their children in the workshop setting, they acquired a healthy outlook on the district mandate for assessment that would get them close to children’s writing and inform their ongoing practice.

For the assessment studies, they decided to ask students to complete a personal narrative of their own choosing, within a framework of the ongoing instruction. In some classrooms, a process approach provided the structure; in other settings, different processes prevailed. A holistic process, using as criteria clear message, logical sequence, voice, and mechanics, enabled the teachers to respond descriptively and quantitatively to the question, “How well do sixth-graders in the Grand Forks public schools write?”

While not perfect, the process was embedded in classroom practice. It enlarged discussion about writing and the writing process, provided teachers with more experience as readers of written discourse, and broadened insights into teaching writing.

A community of writing teachers, able to link the teaching of writing to the classroom context as well as understand ways to make connections between writing and evaluation, is being formed. This is empowerment of a high order. And because of the way the evaluation process was organized, students have learned to evaluate their own writing. This contributes more to improving writing than any process that stands apart from teachers and ongoing instruction. Although the focus has been on writing, connections to other subjects should be clear.

The foregoing hardly covers all the possibilities in “authentic” or “performance-based” assessment. Basic to such efforts is the close tie of assessment to instructional process. The interest is not in what students can give back in terms of information, but what they can do, the relationships they can make, the understandings they can develop and extend to other learnings.

Other Benefits

In addition to the benefits discussed and implied from systematic record-keeping, our experience reveals that teachers who document children’s learning through carefully organized records tend also to be more knowledgeable about children and learning. They become the “students of teaching” that schools need and parents desire. Teachers able to describe children’s learning in great detail are trusted and capable of helping re-establish parental confidence in schools.

ACEI decries the continuing potency of standardized testing in primary school programs. Stressing the inappropriateness of standardized testing, it argues that teachers and parents should oppose using test results to make any important judgment about a child. It sets forth unequivocally that all testing in preschool and grades K-2 and the practice of testing every child in later elementary years should cease. To continue such testing in the face of so much evidence of its deleterious effects, its opposition to most of what we know about the developmental needs of young children, is the height of irresponsibility.

We know, for example, that testing results in increased pressure on children, setting too many up for devastating failure, and consequently, lowered self-esteem; does not provide useful information about individual children, yet often becomes the basis for decisions about entry into kindergarten, promotion and retention in grades and placement in special classes; leads to harmful tracking and labeling; compels teachers to spend time preparing children to take the tests, undermining efforts to provide a developmentally sound program responsive to children’s interests and needs; limits educational possibilities, resulting in distortion of curriculum, teaching, and learning, as well as lowered expectations; and fails to set conditions for cooperative learning and problem solving.

In emphasizing the critical need to seek more constructive directions for staying close to children’s growth, this position paper presents teachers and schools with a means of entering assessment systematically and beneficially. Authentic, performance-based assessment guarantees greater understanding of the growth of individual children, which should reduce the need for any current testing programs.

Vito Perrone is Director of Programs in Teacher Education and Chair, Teaching, Curriculum and Learning Environments Program, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Combridge, MA. The above is condensed from Childhood Education, 67 (Spring 1991), The Association for Childhood Education International.