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
*Phonics 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 )
To include:

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.

18 thoughts on “TEARS!

  1. Amy Binin

    This is such a heart breaking vignette however it’s not surprising!

    Thank you for keeping the conversation going!

    It’s hard to believe that these inappropriate assessments drive inappropriate teaching! With pressure on the principals, many don’t know how to counter this; especially if they are new!

    Usually I’m such an optimistic, however I’m sad to say that I don’t see much hope until we get a new mayor since they choose the chancellor!

    Thanks for keeping us informed with your blog, facebook articles and petitions!

    1. Renee Post author


      I agree with you about a new mayor but I’m really fearful that the wrong person will get in. I wish it could be Bill DeBlasio, but I’m not sure how much support he has throughout the city.

      We can hope…and fight!


    2. Paulette Vee

      As I sit here and reply to ‘Tears’, my heart weeps and my hands shake. It is tough for me to type, but my small experience should be known. In the recent past, I was a Title 1 Tutor at a good, but data-driven school. I had the pleasure to work with three young boys in the second grade who were reading at a kindergarten grade level. Sadly, because second grade is not a “critical test year”, I was only allotted 15 minutes per day to meet with these boys. Our work with sight words naturally turned into a game, where the boys would compete against one another to see who could recite the word quickest. (Looking back, this was a big mistake on my part. It was not part of the plan, but just happened. I should have re-directed the boys.) One of my students, who is known to be highly distracted and sensitive started to cry and buried his head because he could not keep up with the other two boys. He, peacefully, stopped participating so I let him be. I did coach him a little and provided some “opportunities” to see the words ahead of his peers. Again, this was probably not a bright idea on my part either. It was a tough situation, and since we only get 15 minutes to work together, there was not much time for me to act! …. Fast forward, as we were leaving the media center to head back to the boys’ classrooms, another teacher (not the teacher to these boys) saw my “sensitive” student wiggling around a lot and not following my direction to walk quietly in the hallway. Before I knew what was happening, this teacher proceeded to yell at my student. I gently turned to this teacher and whispered how my student had just been crying, and that it is ok. (In other words, lay off him please!) Rather than respecting my wishes, in her stern “I’m a new teacher who thinks I know it all” voice, she said, “Well, he is a 2nd grader and shouldn’t cry!” … Without thinking, I yelled at this teacher in defense of my student. It was really more of a motherly instinct that came out of me, in defense of this child. I was horrified that this teacher could not recognize the very human need we ALL have, regardless of our age, to express our emotions. … This is one of the last experiences I had as an Educator. I will never forget it; It is one of many bad experiences that has led to my decision to leave the profession. This is typical of the treatment of our students in Georgia’s public schools.

      1. Renee Post author

        That is such a sad story and I’m truly distressed to hear of the teacher’s treatment towards the child. I must say that in the ten years that I’ve been working as a literacy consultant, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many public schools in New York City. It’s very rare for me to hear or see a teacher mistreating a child. I do, however, think that the instructional demands on young children are a form of mistreatment, but that’s more the fault of the Department of Education. I also feel like the recent standardized tests that NYC children have been forced to take for three days last week and three days this week straddle child-abuse quite closely.

        Perhaps, if you can deal with it, you should try to stay with your tutoring work. It sounds like the children really do need you!

        Best wishes,

  2. Tomasen

    I LOVE this post! How can we get more of this information out there. Your description of these assessments and how they helped you to understand each child, yes, dare I say, the whole child, is priceless. This of course, is punctuated by the tears of that student in the hall. What is going to happen to our kids? I keep wondering what we can do to penetrate the greater population at large to help them see how destructive this numbers game is.
    Thanks for writing!!

  3. Kathy Collins

    Hi Renée,
    I can see it now – the crying rubric – this poor child scored a 4 – excellent crying which is characterized by breathlessness, uncontrollability, voluntary separation from the group, shuddering upper body.

    This is so sad and sickening, and I can hear the other side’s shrill observations: “Well, she’s gotta learn to deal with tests.” or “Life isn’t easy, and they might as well learn that early!” or “She’s immature,” or “Hmm, something else must be really bothering her.” After all, the tests must go on…until we all realize that these constant and high stress assessments and the culture around them are like paddles from the old days. These are paper paddles, always looming, keeping everyone in check, and hurting those who aren’t.

    Thank you, Renee for telling this story out loud! I will pass it along.


    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Kathy! A rubric for crying, now why didn’t I think of that? Should it be a 4 for crying, a 3 for wetting pants, a 2 for etc., etc.? What a sorry state of affairs, isn’t it? A far cry (cry!) from our experience in Reggio Emilia last October!

  4. Renee Post author

    Thank you Tomasen. Perhaps some strategy for dealing with this inhumane treatment of children (and teachers, for that matter) will come out of the May 4th Conference at Barnard.

  5. Vicki Vinton

    I was in a school the other month when a kindergarten ran out of the classroom because he didn’t know where to put the period. His teacher told me he was ‘over dramatic,’ but these students are clearly picking up on the anxiety in the air. And it’s utterly shameful. Keep the stories coming! We need to hear them!

  6. Renee Post author

    Vicki, I hear story after story like yours. It is child-abuse but sanctioned child-abuse. We really and truly must put a stop to this nonsense.

  7. Brian Cambourne

    Hi Renee,
    This is a message I’ll be sharing with my Aussie colleagues who are facing the same sorts of issues. Thank you for posting nit

    1. Renee Post author

      Hello Brian

      Thank you for sharing the blog post although I’m so sorry to hear that you’re facing the same issues in Australia. Where is this craziness all coming from and where will it go? It’s so sad and discouraging.

  8. Christine Napolitan

    There’s so little I can say except that the world has gone awry. I confess that official “senior citizendom” has caused me to try to couch my thoughts in careful vocabulary for fear that nothing I have to say will be given credence, but I totally agree with all your thoughts. In answer to your question to Brian Cambourne , “Where is this craziness all coming from…?” I think we have only to look around. The corporate world has become totally inhumane in its expectations and treatment of its employees, yet our youth aspire to that life. To get there, the pressure is on, from the parents, the schools, and the government. At the base of it all, I believe, is that the changes in our culture are such that, indeed, all children must aspire to college, regardless of their passions or talents, because the current American society values little of what was once considered honorable. When I was a child, the public school educated the families of doctors, lawyers, hardware store clerks, factory workers and farm hands. Their parents were all able to support their families in their respective jobs, and were considered respectable, hard-working people. The jobs at the lower end of the financial spectrum, if they still exist, are considered jobs for teenagers, college students, or those who are looking for something better. One can’t support a family with their pay. When the dignity of hard work is lost, it leaves very few options except the academic world as a means to becoming a self-supporting adult. Witness our Park Slope neighborhood, Renee. My three children with three advanced degrees, three professional jobs, and equally educated and employed spouses can’t afford to live in the neighborhood where they were raised.
    What’s happening in education is, I think, a direct response to the consumer society that overly values high wages and material gains. In all honesty, education was more child-oriented and fun when I was young, but the system was NOT required to teach all students toward the same goal. It did not succeed in higher high school graduation rates, or anything even close to the number of students attending some post high school education. The society, however, was such that it didn’t have to mean “the end of the line” for someone’s life.
    This is a global, vicious circle.

  9. Sarah

    Hi Renee,

    I am 37 days away from finishing my first year of teaching first grade! My whole life I have dreamed of being a teacher. It wasn’t until college that I fell in love with the Reggio style of teaching. I was blessed to visit Reggio Emilia during the summer going into my senior year of college! It was AWESOME!

    I was hired a week before school started back in Mid August of 2012. I was so excited! The school I teach in is the epitome of a data driven school. We have a data wall and data meetings and each child is colored red, yellow, or green. In fact, the principal is talking about displaying quotes regarding specific data data data on the wall next year. The more I become engrossed in the data driven mentality, the more discouraged I become. It’s so sad that watercolors were requested on our supply list but have stayed in the closet due to the high demands of test after test after tests. Not only do these children have to take the test on paper and pencil, but also log them into the computer.

    Is their any advice you can offer? As a first year teacher I feel trapped by numbers. Have we forgotten about creativity and student choice? I yearned to be mentored by a Reggio or Reggio-inspired educator.

    Thank you!! Your blog is so inspiring!

  10. Kacey

    Hi Renee,

    I found your recent post “Tears” to be disheartening. I have several friends who pursued teaching and have similar stories to share. They are forced to check their creativity at the door in order to meet rising academic demands. I feel fortunate to say that I can’t relate.

    I have nothing but positive memories of my early childhood years. My fondest memories include choice-time, imaginary trips around the world (with passport stamps to prove it), arts and crafts and journaling my weekends spent with the coveted (and jointly owned) Winnie the Pooh. I feel blessed to have been a part of a school community that was geared towards individual children and not driven by scores.


    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you Kacey. Hopefully, we will get those memories back into kindergarten! Yesterday I spoke with someone who’s son recently graduated from college and he wants to go into teaching because he loves working with children. I’ve always been excited and encouraging when hearing about someone joining the profession, but I found myself warning him against going into this situation. Afterwards, I was so depressed because I’ve always felt passionate about teaching and here I was telling a young man that he should think twice before making that step.

  11. janice

    After 26 years, I decided I could no longer be a part of part of the tests, tests, tests! I absolutely love teaching middle school kids. I couldn’t close my door anymore. I feel, I have had some of the MOST superior educators from around the world through my college experience. The University of Fresno Pacific in the central valley and the professors there have taught me to know the difference between delivering information, adding the old anxiety and demanding the one right answer with FACILITATING LEARNING.
    My soul was sad. I taught one last 7th grade world history and language arts class and loved them with all my heart. I see tons of kids that I know and… I know I made a difference!
    Starting one day a week with youth group in piano at church, SOo life is good. Thank you for the opportunity to share.

    1. Renee Post author

      Thank you for sharing. It’s a shame to end 26 years of teaching on a such a sad note. I keep hoping that we can have some impact on
      creating TRUE reform…not the reactionary so-called reform that is destroying our children’s education. The fight, however, is quite draining!

      Very best of luck,


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