Second Grade Testing: A Position Paper

Brenda S. Engel, Lesley College

This position paper outlines reasons to oppose standardized testing of second
graders and then suggests a viable alternative.

A. Primary school children and standardized testing

1. Tests of children in grade two are likely to be unreliable. Walt Haney of Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, for instance, says, Test results for young children are much less reliable than for older children. Research clearly shows that for children below fourth grade, the mechanics of taking tests and answering on specialized answer sheets can prove more difficult than the cognitive tasks the tests are asking them to address. Thus the test results are too much influenced by children’s ability to fill in bubbles and handle pieces of paper; too little determined by their ability to read.

2. Related to the above point is the evident fact that standardized tests are scary for primary school children, bad for their morale and confidence. Overwhelmed by the test situation, they often don t show what they do know and can do. Instances of children breaking down, crying, unable to face school, becoming literally sick with anxiety in the face of standardized tests, are common. Most teachers in the early grades understand the importance of maintaining their students level of interest and high morale, both of which tend to be undone by tests. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has, for a number of years, come out against standardized testing of young children for some of these same reasons.

3. Most seven-year-olds are still in the process of acquiring the complex skills involved in learning to read and write. They need a chance to consolidate these skills which, at first, are fragile and inconsistent. Premature testing, no matter how well intentioned, is discouraging to the learner like having a work-in-progress exposed to summary judgment. And no matter how well intentioned the tests, no matter what the disclaimers or reassurances, the results will be understood by the children as judgment.

4. Differences in background show up vividly in the early years of schooling: some children arrive in school never having actually handled a book or in some cases seen one close up; others have had books read to them since infancy. These differences tend to diminish in the face of their common school experience. Narrowing the gap between the more and less advantaged students is one of the great potentials of the public school system. Premature testing, however, by highlighting differences, will reinforce them in the minds of children. Young children are not likely to have the kind of perspective that allows them to see the possibility of catching up . Since they always know who did well and who did badly children will sort themselves out accordingly. They will be likely to characterize themselves relative to their classmates as good readers (like fast runners ) or bad readers (like slow runners ). The early identification some poor testers will make of themselves as academic losers will be difficult at the very least to undo later.

B. Effects on teachers and schools

1. Teachers of kindergarten, first, second and third grades know very well, from their ordinary classroom activities, which children are learning to read and write with relatively little difficulty and which need extra help. Evaluation is part and parcel of daily instruction, a built-in function. When an outside agency takes over the responsibility for evaluation, however, the teacher loses both autonomy and confidence in his or her own expertise and trustworthiness. We convey to the teacher the disrespectful message that we do not trust her/him to evaluate student progress. The hazard, then, is that teachers abdicate responsibility for assessing learning and rely for instructional guidance on the relatively thin, out-of-context and delayed information contained in the test results.

2. Some teachers, in order to prepare students for answering questions on short reading passages, will use more work sheets and drill students on skills and vocabulary out of context. In competition for good scores on the reading tests, teachers will feel pressure to improve students testable skills. The curriculum in reading, then, is likely to become dry and mechanical with little time given to the kinds of rich reading and writing experiences that can hook children on books forever, with little effort made toward developing true literary cultures in the classroom. Reading will become a boring, meaningless, academic performance for most children although, again, less for those fortunate enough to have had an early introduction to the pleasures of literature.

In sum, the proposed second grade testing is the result of a pervasive and, in our opinion, mistaken belief that the solutions to perceived low school achievement are more testing, longer hours and more home work, .all of which are likely to be felt by children as burdens. These presumed solutions are not only inappropriate for young children but will prove counter-productive for both teaching and learning.

That, then, is the bad news. There is some good news, however, since we do believe it important to keep close track of children s reading ability in the early grades. The Early Literacy Assessment (ELA) developed in the Cambridge, Massachusetts Public Schools, provides an alternative to which the above objections don t pertain and which still meets the need for valid, reliable information on second grade reading.

The Early Literacy Assessment

A. History of the Early Literacy Assessment

The Early Literacy Assessment has evolved over a period of a dozen years. The initial impetus for the assessment came out of the Cambridge-Lesley Literacy Project in the mid eighties which introduced the theory and practice of meaning-based reading and writing instruction into the Cambridge schools:

The primary motivation for seeking new methods for assessment has been to obtain more constructive, reliable information than that yielded by traditional standardized testing information that teachers can then put to direct use in the classroom and that will have a positive affect on actual practice.

Theory, forms and protocols were worked out and further developed in courses and workshops within the school system and at Lesley College. The actual project in the schools was directed by a three-person steering committee working with successive groups of participating specialists and teachers. It was piloted in the Cambridge public schools and revised, from 1994 to 1998, according to teachers recommendations. In the fall of 1998, the Cambridge School Committee recommended adoption of the Early Literacy Assessment citywide.

B. Content and Implementation

The new methods are simple and direct: essentially reading is assessed by having children read a whole (though brief) text; writing, by examining samples of children s in-class written work. The oral reading, a Running Record , is recorded and analyzed. Protocols, scoring and details of implementation (such as teacher training) are more complex and were worked out over time.

Stages in reading ability are defined by six developmental levels from early emergent to fluent. A child is assigned a level according to the difficulty of the text he/she is able to negotiate successfully (which includes giving an account of the overall content). Writing is assessed through a parallel developmental matrix similarly divided into six levels.

Expectations for the different grade levels are clear: what levels students should attain, for instance, in grade two. Although the Assessment is administered at specified times of the year, teachers, if they see a need, can do an interim assessment: if a teacher, for example, is uncertain about a particular student s assessed level, she can check it out at any point in time. (In the case of standardized tests, administered once a year by an outside agency, if a teacher is puzzled by a result, she has to wait until the following year to see if the score might have been influenced by outside
factors such as illness, loss of a pet or other common, only indirectly related events.)

Teachers, with support from in-school specialists, are responsible for administering and scoring Running Records of the oral reading samples and for collecting writing samples. The writing samples are scored through a planned exchange among teachers so no one person is scoring the writing of his/her own students. In case of disagreement, a third scoring is done.

C. Results of the Early Literacy Assessment

Outcomes of the Assessment are recorded in both words (levels from emergent to fluent ) and numbers (levels 1-6). In addition, analysis of the Running Records themselves yield useful information on how a student is reading – what strategies he or she has available, what kinds of errors he makes, and so on. This information gives the teacher clues to instruction. The same benefits result from the writing sample; the teacher can adjust assignments and instruction to the needs of the students.

The results are accurate in part because of the simplicity, openness and directness of the process oral reading. The results are also easily verifiable: anyone with a genuine interest in the outcomes can spot-check and confirm a teacher s assessment of the children s oral reading levels.

The recorded outcomes thus serve several purposes: feedback of qualitative information to teachers and students that helps guide teaching and learning; clear, understandable information for families and caretakers ( Maria is able to read and understand this text ); quantified information for administrators from school principals to the State Department of Education. The results can be aggregated and graphed for individual classrooms, schools, or districts.

D. Benefits of the Early Literacy Assessment

1. Teachers take on the primary responsibility for assessment within a well thought out process with established protocols. This assumption of responsibility will enhance teachers sense of themselves as capable professionals able not only to teach but also think about their teaching, become researchers in their own classrooms. This should result in more thoughtful, intelligent, and effective teaching. In addition, teaching to the test in this case means simply teaching reading, i.e., attending to all aspects of students progress in becoming literate.

2. The assessment process and results are visible and understandable to children. They can see their own learning in terms of the increasing difficulty of the texts they can read, becoming aware of change and progress. Thus children can participate in evaluating their own learning never a possibility with standardized testing. Because they are taking on a measure of responsibility, children are likely to be more motivated towards improving their abilities.

3. Families and caretakers can, like the children, understand the continuum of six levels and see their children move from one level to the next. They can also see when significant progress is not being made and ask for explanations. Thus the ELA will empower parents rather than mystify them with numbers out of context, as is often the case with standardized test results.

4. The ELA has another significant advantage, related to the above point: the way the scores are conceived and presented. The numbered levels represent steps towards fluency. The numbers in most test scores, in contrast, are judgments at a point in time which depend on comparisons with a larger, unseen population. A child could get a high test score in grade two and a low one in grade four which doesn’t mean however that he or she is reading less well in grade four. In fact it is not always clear to the layman what it does mean.

5. School administrations and school districts will benefit in several ways: they will have aggregatable, reliable information on second grade reading which can be verified through random sampling. Costs of the Early Literacy Assessment are a factor for consideration in the initial phase of teacher training only. Thereafter, needs are minimal with funds required only for materials (i.e. books) and duplicating (forms) as well as some training of new teachers unfamiliar with the methods, and occasional refresher workshops.

The basic and most important benefit of the Early Literacy Assessment lies in the message it conveys to teachers, administrators, families and the children themselves: rather than looking to the outside, to some external agency to tell them how well children are learning, schools take on this responsibility themselves as part of the educational process. This kind of evaluation has an immediate feedback function, improving education and dignifying teachers and children. School reform then becomes the project of those closest to the action. Responsibility in addition to accountability are the key words.