High Stakes Tests For 3-Year-Olds?

If you’re a parent of a young charter school student in DC – or just someone who cares about early education – you need to know what’s happening here in the nation’s capital, and fast.

In less than a week, all charter schools that serve young children will start being held accountable to their students’ test scores on reading and math.

Just to clarify: we’re talking about three-, four-, and five-year-olds. Being Tested. In Reading and Math. With High Stakes attached for the schools that care for them.

First, some context: Like many other cities, DC is a place where daycare waiting lists can last for years, and where the costs of childcare can amount to a second mortgage. Unlike other cities, however, Washington ranks first in the nation for its percentage of 3- and 4-year-old children enrolled in preschool programs – 88% in all, and at an expense of nearly $15,000 per child. That’s a huge advantage for DC’s families, and a huge influence on the overall development and growth of the city’s youngest residents.

As DC inches closer to its goal of providing universal preschool by 2014, our civic leaders are rightfully asking themselves what else they should do to ensure that our deep investments in early childhood reap deep civic returns. And in their effort to provide an answer, DC’s sole authorizing and oversight body for charter schools – the Public Charter School Board – has proposed an accountability plan for the youngest children that would mimic the format that’s already in place for the oldest.

If the plan is approved – and it will be, barring significant community objections – all of the city’s Pre-K and lower elementary charter school programs will forthwith be ranked according to a weighted formula that assigns between 60 and 80% of a school’s overall performance to student reading and math scores. And although the proposal includes the possibility for schools to “opt-in” to adding an assessment that measures the social and emotional (SEL) growth of children, it would count for just 15% of the total for Preschool and PreK, and 10% for Kindergarten.

This sort of weighted formula squares neatly with the latest trends in education policy. It does not, however, align with the latest research on the brain.

“Everything that happens to us affects the way the brain develops,” says Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and the author of The Whole Brain Child. “The brain is a social organ, made to be in relationship. What happens between brains has a great deal to do with what happens within each individual brain . . . [And] the physical architecture of the brain changes according to where we direct our attention and what we practice doing.”

Where we direct our attention, then, matters greatly when it comes to determining what our children will practice doing, and how their brains will develop.  And what scholars like Siegel are saying is that the worst thing we can do is disproportionately weight one piece of the developmental puzzle. “We want to help our children become better integrated so they can use their whole brain in a coordinated way,” he explains. “We want them to be horizontally integrated, so that their left-brain logic can work well with their right-brain emotion. We also want them to be vertically integrated, so that the physically higher parts of the brain, which let them thoughtfully consider their actions, work well with the lower parts, which are more concerned with instinct, gut reactions, and survival.”

Siegel’s suggestions align with the recommendations of other leading researchers, all of who confirm that the foundation of learning is social, not academic. In fact, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization that works to advance the science and evidence-based practice of social and emotional learning, the best way for schools to provide the optimal foundation for learning is by helping students develop five core competencies: self-awareness, or the ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior; self-management, or the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations; social awareness, or the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures; relationship skills, or the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups; and responsible decision-making, or the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions. CASEL has even published a compendium of the available assessment measures when it comes to measuring these sorts of skills in children.

In other words, the research is clear, the tools are out there, and the common sense is self-evident to anyone who is a parent to young children. So I ask you: will an accountability framework that places as much as 80% of its weight behind reading and math scores engender a generation of children with the skills CASEL identifies as the foundation of all learning, or lead to the sort of neurobiological integration scholars like Siegel are calling for?

If you think the answer is yes, sit tight. But if you think the answer is no, I urge you to call or email the PCSB’s executive director, Scott Pearson (spearson@dcpubliccharter.com, 202.328.2660) and insist that any accountability system assign equal weight to the different components of a healthy, high-functioning learning environment – including, and not limited to, social and emotional growth. (You can also sign this petition.)

The past twelve years of federal policy have taught us that when it comes to assessing the upper grades, reading and math are valuable – and overvalued. Let’s not make the same mistake twice.

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  1. Posted August 21, 2013 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Dear Sam,
    Here, in Spain, many of us, concerned with education, often feel disappointed with the reasons that move our politicians to make their (our) choices. You know, many times they look for inspiration in the American pattern.
    I see that side of the Ocean suffers that same problem: politicians runs forward against scientific evidence stream. Probably our representatives also drink those waters upstream.
    What you tell us, and I thank you for that, is double-astonishing for me.
    Aren’t UCLA and CASEL worldwide renowned American institutions? Weren’t Howard Gardner, Daniel Golemam, Carl Rogers, David Perkins, Richard Schwartz among many others, internationally followed American gurus? Weren’t there a deep reflection in your country about the negative effects of standarized measurements on learning?
    I sincerely wish you win this battle for your children and for ours.

  2. Posted August 21, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Thank you so much, Miguel. I hope you’ll consider sending the PCSB an email. I think it will send a powerful message for them to know that people all over the world are paying attention to what is happening here, and wishing for a more informed decision.

  3. kate willaredt
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    I just wanted to post what I sent to Scott Pearson in case anyone wanted to do the same. Feel free to use it to write something similar (maybe I should have given myself better credentials?!) This is such important stuff.

    Hello Scott,

    My name is Kate Willaredt and I am a preschool teacher and am also working on my masters degree in early childhood education. I live in Kansas City, Missouri. I am a friend of Sam Chaltain and a big fan of the work he’s doing in your city and beyond. I realize I don’t live in DC and may not have a lot of sway at all, but I read about the initiative to begin testing preschool aged children in your city and I wanted to shout. Not only does brain research show that children are not at all cognitively ready (even in kindergarten, but that is yet another fight for another day) to do this kind of high stakes testing. Children in early childhood programs across the country need a safe place to work on building social skills, to learn about themselves and begin to negotiate the world around them so that they may be successful in all of their future educational endeavors. They do NOT need to be a number, or to be tested on things that their little brains aren’t even ready to comprehend. Math scores? At 3, 4 or 5? I mean, really. It’s laughable, don’t you think? If we want to produce generations of students who will be successful in a global community, we need them to work on social skills and self-regulation skills in early childhood programs. We don’t need to be testing their math and reading skills. We are asking children to do things that they are not ready to do. We are setting expectations that they will never meet successfully.

    Again, I know that I don’t live in DC, but I worry that this initiative is indicative of changes heading my way as well. Children in early education programs need people like Sam and like me – and people like YOU – to advocate for what is best for them. Standardized testing is NOT what is best. It isn’t developmentally appropriate for our children. If you want to hold early childhood programs accountable, they need to be assessed on the types of social and emotional skills they are nurturing and fostering in their students. Only when those goals are met should they be tested on math and reading skills. Please consider this.

    Thank you so much for your time.

  4. A different sam
    Posted August 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Can you add a link to the proposal being considered?

  5. Posted August 21, 2013 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    You bet. Go to http://www.livebinders.com/play/play?id=959446&backurl=/shelf/my#anchor, then click PUBLIC HEARING in the left column, and then EARLY CHILDHOOD PMF after that.

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