Testing Kindergarten

By Kelly McMahon

Illustrator: Randall Enos

Illustration: Randall Enos

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 diagramsound out, understand, poetry, tracking, sight word, expression, and describe; it also expects kindergartners to produce 20 different sounds, including the blending and digraph sounds chqu, shth,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 Miller and Joan Almon 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.

Works Cited

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.