How can a bird that is born for joy
Sit in a cage and sing?
How can a child, when fears annoy,
But droop his tender wing
And forget his youthful spring?
William Blake from Songs of Experience
A skinned knee. A quarrel. A stomach ache. A parent-child standoff at bedtime. Refusal to leave a playdate. Saying goodbye to mommy at school in the morning.
These are some possible reasons for the tears of a six-year.
Why would a six-year old be standing in the school hallway, sobbing beyond control? That’s what I wondered when I saw her last week, standing by the water fountain, tears streaming down her face. I recognized her from one of the first grade classes that I visited earlier in the day and I tried to comfort her but the sobs wouldn’t stop. You probably know what it’s like when a child cries so hard that it’s impossible for her to even pause to catch her breath.
These sobs sounded like tears of agony. I was looking around the empty hallway, wondering who was responsible for this small child, when a teacher came out of a classroom, extended a friendly arm and said, “Come with me.” Over the child’s head, she whispered to me, “It’s the math assessment. It frightened her and she ran out of the room crying.”
I’ve been haunted by this image for days. A six-year old, crying hysterically because of a math assessment, should give us pause. What are we doing to our children and why in the world are we doing this?
I am not opposed to assessing children’s social and academic progress. When I taught kindergarten and first grade, I informally made note of what children knew at the start of the year, mostly through my written and unwritten observations, interviews with parents and also informal and formal discussions with the children.
Throughout the year, I kept notes on each child’s progress or struggles. This documentation helped me determine what kinds of lessons I would teach, who needed extra, individual help, and what kinds of special topics my children were interested in pursuing.
In the mid-1990’s, my school, P.S. 321, began a New York City pilot program using The Primary Language Record in our early childhood classes. The London-based Centre For Primary Education developed this formative system of assessment for literacy in primary education. We began by interviewing each parent about his or her child. (Of course, who is more knowledgeable about the child?) Then we interviewed the child. Over the course of the year, we observed the child in different social/instructional situations – self-initiated activities, teacher-initiated activities, small group and whole group interactions. Completing these reports involved a good deal of work. However, I can truly say that I never understood each child as well as I did while implementing the PLR. This is a wonderful tool for viewing and understanding , as it is so unhip to say these days, the whole child, recognizing the child’s strength’s and also learning where the child needed the most support. I used the observation templates throughout the year and also wrote two formal reports for each child.
Along with the Primary Language Record, we used the First Steps Reading Developmental Continuum and the First Steps Writing Developmental Continuum. These two wonderfully helpful documents provide a diagnostic framework for mapping students’ progress in writing and reading. It was so helpful to look at the children’s reading and writing progress through a developmental lens. Each continuum includes a bullet-pointed list of indicators describing each developmental stage. The phases in Reading were Role Playing, Experimental Reading, Early Reading, Transitional Reading, Independent Reading and Advanced Reading. Each phase is supported with a list of the major teaching points for the teacher to emphasize, preparing the child for transitioning into the next phase. There is a similar continuum for the road that children take towards becoming proficient writers, with illustrated examples of what writing might look like for each phase.
These continuums are not judgmental. They don’t assume that each child will need to reach a specific benchmark by a certain age. The assumption is that, with proper instruction and encouragement, children will all, at their pace, become readers and writers.
By guiding teachers through this assessment process, these reports have the added “perk” of supporting the teacher’s professional growth. I learned so much about how to look at children’s work with a greater understanding of developmental and academic benchmarks. In addition, it became so much clearer to me how I could individualize and plan instruction that was truly based on my student’s performance in reading and writing.
Compare this humanistic approach to instruction and assessment with the following list of assessments taking place in a New York City public school kindergarten class.
This startling list came to me from a teacher who is working in a school in the South Bronx . Most of the children in her class are second language learners. It’s the teacher’s professional belief that the children would benefit from opportunities for inquiry, exploration and play. Unfortunately, as you can see by the list of assessments, there’s not much time left for any active learning to take place during the school day.
Required Assessment for Kindergarten:
Reading: parts of ECLAS
Phonemic awareness strand
*To be recorded in *Assessment Pro
*Running records (November, January, March & June)
*High frequency words
Total: 84 assessments (for 21 students)
On demand writing assessment at the beginning and end of each unit (of which there are 7)
For each on demand piece, for each student, we must grade the sample with a detailed rubric (9 categories). In addition, there must be a
published piece for each unit which needs to be assessed with the same rubric.
Total: 441 assessments (21 x 21)
In addition, during reading and writing workshop we are to have
individual conferences with each child every week and keep and submit
notes of said conferences. (21 x 2= 44) 1 on 1 conferences weekly.
Initial and summative unit assessments (5 units)
Baseline/mid-year/end of year assessment and performance tasks
Total: 210 assessments (10 x 21 )
Goals for each student in each of five subject areas 105 (5 x 21)
A self-reflective piece for each student for every subject area
*In addition, any work displayed on a bulletin board is required to also be accompanied by a rubric, common core standards, task and post-its with individualized comment for each student.
Grand total: 840 (plus conferences, bulletin boards, 3 report cards, 2 interim progress reports)
Would you believe that all of the above is taking place in a kindergarten class over the course of a school year? There’s little opportunity for joyful teaching or for joyful learning. There are mainly opportunities for stressful teaching and for stressful learning! According to the child psychologist Brenda Bryant, professor of human development at the University of California, Davis, and “if stress is really interfering with development, that is a problem Sometimes with too much stress kids get immobilized. It starts as soon as kindergarten….It turns the joy of learning into a struggle to excel.”
As I was reading my description of the Primary Language Record to my husband, he made an important observation. He said that it sounded to him as if the PLR reports were descriptive whereas what is happening in schools today is that reports are numbered and data driven. I recently had a conversation with a lovely woman who is an official in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. When I mentioned my concern with assessing a child or a school by looking at numbers on a test her response was, “Well how else will we know if there’s success?”
If we value children based on the numbers they score on their assessments, aren’t we shirking our responsibilities as educators. There are smart ways to teach and assess children. Perhaps the “smart” instructional and assessment methods aren’t the easiest, but what they lack in ease they more than make up in validity and appropriateness.
We need to stop, catch our breath, and really think hard and strong about what this obsession with number-crunching assessments is doing to the children in our care.