The Transformation of Kindergarten

The San Antonio Express-News ran a series of articles over the last two days about how the emphasis on standardized testing has changed kindergarten in South Texas. It’s pretty sad. Since I just posted about TAKS, I thought I might as well pass this along for further thought.

More kids repeating kindergarten
Web Posted: 12/04/2006 04:04 AM CST
Jeanne Russell and Jenny LaCoste-Caputo

The use of standardized testing as a key means to improve public school performance has been a fact of life in Texas since 1993. A lesser-known fact: More kindergarten students have been held back each year during that period.

Both the number and percentage of Texas students repeating kindergarten has inched up each year since the 1994-95 school year. Some San Antonio area districts are retaining kindergarten students at particularly high rates, despite the concerns of early childhood experts who criticize the practice as ineffective and confidence-sapping for young children.

It is not clear whether the emphasis on standardized testing performance alone has led to more 5-year-olds repeating kindergarten here. Nationally, the retention rate has remained flat. What is clear in Texas, however, is that those who teach the youngest children are feeling pressure to prepare their students, not for first grade or even for second, but for third grade, when students take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills for the first time.
In 2003, the state mandated that third graders must pass the TAKS to move on to fourth grade.

“What we realized is that the third grade TAKS is not just a measure of your third grade, it’s a measure of your kindergarten through third-grade program,” said Alicia Thomas, associate superintendent for instruction in the North East Independent School District.

To help gauge their students’ skills, most kindergarten teachers have used the Texas Primary Reading Inventory, or TPRI, since 1999, when the state began requiring it, or an alternative test, to measure literacy.

Some districts use the results for teaching purposes, such as establishing reading groups in class. Others urge parents to have their children repeat kindergarten based on the results.

Those who criticize standardized testing for young students argue that the results provide narrow information about mastery of a specific skill. State education experts and many involved directly in reading instruction counter that the tests offer good predictions of future success in reading and help teachers identify problem areas early.

The pro-testing view is prevailing in the classroom.
“It’s necessary because the stakes have been raised,” said Jeanne Cantu, director of elementary reading and language arts for the San Antonio Independent School District. “The state has raised the stakes in terms of the test the kids must pass.”
Critics such as Samuel Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago-based graduate school named for child development expert Erik Erikson, say that testing young children distorts the learning process.

“It destroys the test validity,” he said, adding: “If you teach just to the test it becomes essentially a rote task. This works against the value of these tests. It’s turned the entire education enterprise upside down.”

Staying behind

Texas public schools retained 11,684 kindergarteners, an average of 3.7 percent, statewide in 2004 — the most recent year for which data are available. Many local districts retained at much higher rates. North East, for example, held back 297 kindergarten students, or 7 percent.

Both the number and percentage of Texas kindergarteners held back has inched up steadily over the past decade, with 1.5 percent retained in the 1994-95 school year, compared to 2.5 percent in 1998-99 and 3.7 percent in 2003-04.

That percentage remains lower than the national rate of 4.7 percent in 2005, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

In Texas, kindergarteners cannot be held back without parental approval. And while test results alone don’t determine if a kindergartener will be held back, they can weight heavily in a teacher’s recommendation.

Teacher Armando Martinez said he’s never recommended that a child be held back.
“If they’re socially ready and mature enough, they should go on to the first grade,” said Martinez, who teaches at SAISD’s Green Elementary School.

Kay Montgomery, principal of May Elementary in Northside ISD and a former kindergarten teacher, said she rarely suggests a child repeat kindergarten.
“The difficulty is it’s hard to know with a child that age how much they’ve really learned,” she said. “I’ve worked with kids that seem to be making no progress, then suddenly it’s like someone turned the light switch on. They didn’t learn it overnight. They just internalize things a lot and they demonstrate what they know when they’re ready.”

Educators in the North East ISD take a more aggressive approach.
“When kids aren’t where they need to be, retention can make a big difference,” Thomas said.

She points out that there can be big age and developmental differences in children entering kindergarten. Because of the age cutoff — children must be 5 by Sept. 1 to begin kindergarten — there can be as much as a year’s age difference in children in the same class.

Thomas said North East gives ongoing additional tests to students who have been identified as struggling with either math or reading. The district also offers summer school for kindergarteners and tests then to give children every chance to show they’re ready for first grade.

Teachers and parents work together, looking at the results of the kindergarten screening test — the TPRI — classroom assessments and whether or not the child has made progress through literacy instruction.

“Ultimately parents just have a big voice,” she said.
The Comal Independent School District has the highest reported retention rate in the San Antonio area — 16.5 percent in 2004. Yet most of those 965 children didn’t repeat the grade.

Victoria Pursch, executive director for elementary education, said the district offered its “pre-first” program as an alternative to repeating the grade, which she considered akin to saying “let’s do it again even though it didn’t work the first time.”
The program is not for at-risk students, but is designed to allow those children who, for social and emotional reasons, need greater movement and a chance to ease into a more academic setting, Pursch said. The New Braunfels and Kerrville school districts also offer the program.

“It’s clearly not about intelligence or reading ability,” Pursch said. “It’s about, is this child ready to sit in class and perform?”

Pursch acknowledges that Comal’s “pre-first” enrollment appears high and says the program, which has been around for at least 15 years, is popular with parents. She believes it has become even more so as pressure to read at an early age has mounted.
“They’re just thinking, why not give my child time to be successful rather than hit a wall in third grade,” she said.

What testing reveals

State officials say the TPRI offers simple, helpful information to prepare students for the challenge of the third grade TAKS.
The test is intended to give teachers a quick sense of where a child stands and was developed from research that shows what skills are most closely related to success in learning reading, said Susan Barnes, an associate commissioner at the Texas Education Agency.

The test focuses on whether children understand the sounds that are the building blocks of letters, syllables and words, what educators call “phonemic awareness.”
“You need to really address that skill or that need or the child will probably not make the progress they need to make by the third grade,” Barnes said.

A growing body of research supports the notion that failure to attack reading difficulties early leads to mounting school failures, said Jack Fletcher, a University of Houston psychologist who helped develop the TPRI.

“It’s the idea of being able to check every child to see if they have a reading problem and to bring resources to the child much sooner rather than wait two or three years or until they take the TAKS test and don’t pass it,” Fletcher said.
Martinez, the Green Elementary teacher, said testing his students helps him zero in on strengths and weaknesses and customize lessons.

“It’s quick. It gets to the point. It gives you immediate feedback that you can share with the parents,” he said.

Students in the San Antonio district who don’t perform well on the TPRI are tested every 10 days using a separate, one-minute test, in keeping with the requirements of a federal Reading First grant.

Cantu, the district’s reading and language arts chief, says that students need to leave kindergarten with phonemic awareness and letter recognition. The tests allow teachers to target specific activities for struggling students, and the district builds an extra half-hour into a student’s daily schedule for such interventions.
Child development experts who believe some amount of testing is appropriate caution that poor results should not close adults’ minds about what kids can do.

Jana Bland, director of the Texas Reading Initiative at the Texas Education Agency, advocates “flexible grouping” so that students struggling with a specific skill are teamed up. Once that skill is learned, the group is dissolved.

In practice, however, Meisels said students may be stuck in reading groups based on these early assessments.

For example, he said, if students are only given reading deemed at their level, they may never be pushed. Early labels, ranging from at-risk to gifted, can shape a child’s school career.

“The child who’s learning a little differently from the mainstream is really at risk, even if he’s really bright,” Meisels said. “There’s all this anxiety around getting him past the test. People will overlook the fact that he has a different way to get to the same result.”

The TPRI is intended to provide extra support to a child who may be struggling with a specific skill, Fletcher said.

“It’s not designed to make decisions about whether a child should repeat kindergarten,” he said.
Like many developmental psychologists, Ellen Frede, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, agrees that test results often predict school success, but says even she must guard against putting too much faith in them.
“It’s very hard to standardize all of the messiness in the way children learn,” Frede said.

People make the numbers the truth about the child, she said, adding, “they tell us something, but they don’t tell us everything.”

TPRI in practice

May Elementary School teacher Sylvia Lopez began giving her students the TPRI in late October.

She pulled aside a shy, serious girl and presented her with a letter of the alphabet, asking her to identify each letter and the sound it made. The child rattled off the letters quickly, earning the right to bypass the remaining phonics questions.

Next, Lopez, who teaches in the Northside Independent School District, read a short passage. She then asked five questions about what happened in the story. The student fixed her eyes on her teacher, before looking away and shaking her head, unable to recall the story details.

Lopez, a 33-year veteran teacher of kindergarten, took the mixed results in stride, though the girl is among her top achievers. Like many local teachers, she dislikes the fact that the state test has no pictures since young children tend to learn visually.

“What it may be is an indication that she’s not an auditory learner,” said Lopez, who later watched the student ace a different test that used a picture book.
The TPRI is designed to take three to four minutes and be given to all children, but it can take 10 or 15 minutes with a child who is struggling. Most local school districts give it three times a year. Lopez has mixed feelings about its usefulness.
“I’m taking time away from when I can be giving feedback and noticing what they’re doing,” she said. “One year, I remember feeling like, ‘How did y’all learn to read?'”

Joanna Bacon, a West Avenue Elementary teacher in the North East district, said she doesn’t think tests intimidate children.
On a recent day, Bacon tested a little girl on the TPRI. The test consisted of identifying letters and their sounds and giving the child three words like “hat,” “mat,” and “gnat” and then asking her to say another word that rhymes. Bacon then tested for early reading skills in a variety of ways. The whole exam lasted about 15 minutes.

Bacon explained later that the student did well — she tested her beyond what was mandatory — identifying letters and sounds, rhyming and answering questions at the end of a story.

There are those times, though, when testing brings tears.
Catherine Rocha, a kindergarten teacher at North East’s East Terrell Hills Elementary, said she liked her district’s approach to testing. That wasn’t so when she taught in Dallas, however, she said.

There, she watched children struggle not just with the TPRI, but with the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and the Stanford 9 — tests that require 5-year-olds to fill in bubbles on an answer sheet.

“We really pushed them a lot, those poor babies,” Rocha said “Kids were crying because they didn’t know the answers.”

Rick Riordan