Focusing on test talk before preschoolers are ready to take standardized assessments with multiple choice questions could be considered malpractice.

I thought it would never happen. Here I am in a Head Start classroom, historically one of the most developmentally appropriate settings for children, and I am being asked to focus on test preparation…. with 3 year-olds. I have written this blog to support any developmentally appropriate teacher who faces the ethical dilemma of teaching test prep in pre-k. Just say no. Here is how.

Our grade level was assigned to read and implement a “professional development” task of reading the 2007 book (Yes that makes it written for No Child Left Behind), Test Talk: Integrating Test Preparation into Reading Workshop. It should be noted that this book is well written for its area of focus, reading workshop. However, reading workshop is a specific reading approach that is beyond the emergent literacy instruction we are expressly charged with developing in pre-k. This assignment asked us to approach our preschool students with the mindset of a second or third grade teacher preparing students for standardized tests. We were asked in the first part of the assignment to read Chapter 1 and to answer the following question: “Do you agree or disagree with the author’s views?” Here is our response.

We do not agree with the authors’ views on the value or focus of early childhood classrooms on standardized testing. Or that standardized testing is something we must bend our practice to. Our disagreement is based on several points described below. We do agree that students should be prepared for standardized assessment, however, when and how that should be a focus of school is the key to our disagreement. We have also considered the value of the assessments themselves.

In the end our disagreement is with the specifics of test preparation in early childhood which assumes that tests are more valuable than language development at this age. Any time a teacher chooses to focus on one topic or area of academic learning they sacrifice another. Is it more important for preschoolers to learn academic language testing mannerisms or to engage with deep and complex language experiences? In our classrooms we saturate students with content area language such as life cycles, engineering language and principles, history, etc. with the support of a teacher well versed in emergent literacy and language development best practices.  We already teach many of the terms used in testing language as the basis of our math instruction including the terms, not, all, some, a few, either, or, and combine. However, when we teach to the test we do not teach to the student the goal or early childhood education.

Priorities in Pre-K

It is our contention that we would do a disservice to 3-4-5 year old students by focusing on test talk before they’re ready to take standardized assessments with multiple choice questions. It could be considered malpractice. Standardized assessments do not usually take place until second grade at the earliest. The assertion that teaching test talk to preschoolers is similar to teaching 6 year olds how to drive, 10 years before they will be faced with the task. We do this in small ways of course because we teach young children how to be safe in their environment. We teach bus safety, how to cross streets, how to be aware of surroundings, how to “read” signs of the road like stop signs and crosswalks. Approaching the eventual task of driving by making students aware of the world around them is different than describing who turns first at a four-way intersection or asking a 6 year old how many car lengths should be between them and the car in front of them. This is called developmentally appropriate instruction, the foundation of teaching in early childhood.

There is an assumption in the concept of test preparation and most discussion of accountability that the way assessment is done in later grades is more valid than the way it is done in early childhood. In Pre-K we use observation, anecdotes, and performance assessment. Have you ever seen a student learn something you weren’t teaching them at the time? When did learning actually occur? Was it while you were teaching, when they were doing seat work, in your class discussion? Was it valuable? Might it help them later in life?

The paradigm that operates within our school and our school system today is predominantly technical. This means it is in the service of specialized arena, state tests, and it is in service of society in a practical manner. Testing is often tied to economic viability instead of concerns for intellectual or political liberation. Policy makers and the public believe that students learn what we teach them. Period. But what might they be learning while we are busy trying to teach them to pass a test? If we only look for student achievement in relation to what we have taught we might never talk about the elephant in the room, that kids might not need everything we are teaching them. Or, kids might be able to learn some things that could be essential to their lives, if we only stopped paying so much attention to those test scores. If we become aware of what happens outside of the mind control testing we might see what is really happening in our students’ lives.

Maybe it only bothers me because we teach preschool where test-prep has only begun to influence our students’ learning. When we focus on quantity what do we sacrifice in quality? This is what testing has wrought, a world where nobody is looking at what really matters, kids lives and freedom.

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