Editorial: Testing and teaching

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Any good school system needs to assess itself. So we welcome news that the School Committee has agreed to study whether kindergartners are subjected to too much testing.

But it is a cautious welcome. Concerns from various quarters about over-reliance on standardized testing are commonplace and sometimes valid, but too little praise is sounded for how the tests can help keep students on track.

What good can come of kindergarten testing? You mean, besides an entire educational foundation?

Flickr / Alberto G.

What good can come of kindergarten testing? You mean, besides an entire educational foundation?

In the case of kindergarten testing at least, it seems clear to us that it is far from excessive in Worcester. For the pupils, the few assessments are almost stress-free. And if the assessments perform as advertised, they can help teachers work wonders by identifying areas of weakness and strength that aren’t obvious in the classroom setting.

In the younger grades especially, tests are part of the toolbox for the central figure: the teacher.

It takes smarts to conduct a kindergarten class. Children with different backgrounds, talents, temperaments and interests must adjust to school rules and expectations. Meanwhile the kids keep and develop, we hope, the spark that makes each unique and fuels their inner drive.

Standardized testing needs a seat in this special setting.

Marco Rodrigues

Courtesy of Worcester Public Schools

Rodrigues

We agree with interim Superintendent Marco C. Rodrigues, who told the Telegram & Gazette that the assessments are necessary and important, “not just to see what students are learning, but to help teachers calibrate their instruction in the classroom.”

Kindergarten is a lively place filled with differences, including this: Some are learning, and some are lagging. This age, with so much school ahead, is an ideal time to step in with wisdom and understanding and to help the ones who are struggling.

There are certain measurable things, bottom line — starting with the ABCs and the 123s — that these kids really must master in order to succeed in the later grades and in life. Proper testing can help elucidate what’s wrong, and why. And from the youngsters’ point of view, test-taking is just a component of the game, and ultimately the joy, that is learning.

The school system’s testing strategy is presented in the August 2015 report Student Assessment in the Worcester Public Schools. Kindergarten pupils are given the ESI once; the WSS/MKEA twice per year; and the DIBELS Next three times per year. English-language learners throughout the grades take an additional comprehensive assessment.

The ESI, or Early Screening Inventory — an initial look at whether special education services might be needed —  takes less than half an hour and is usually given just before entry into kindergarten.

The WSS/MKEA — Work Sampling System/Massachusetts Kindergarten Entry Assessment — is designed to have data collected over several weeks without interruption to the child’s schedule. A portfolio of student work and checklists based on teacher observation provides records in the areas of personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, and physical development and health.

DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) Next is a quick one-on-one test given at the beginning, middle and end of the school year. It uses software to assess in less than five minutes whether children understand, or are stumbling over, reading essentials such as letter recognition.

Optional and supplemental tests are sometimes used, too, for the whole class or for individuals striving to keep up with peers. The city’s elementary schools may choose whether to administer the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System (F&P BAS) reading test to kindergartners in addition to first- and second-graders; it takes about 45 minutes three times a year, according to the report.

We sympathize with concerns that have been discussed for years that high-stakes testing in the upper grades can take too much of the system’s attention, detracting from teaching and from the kind of learning that sticks and that matters.

We also believe that the quality of teaching is paramount in our and any school system, and though difficult to measure and address, deserves more focus than it gets.

Still, we will be curious to hear the findings from the school board’s Teaching, Learning and Student Supports Standing Committee, and urge the board to listen closely to the educators who actually administer and interpret the various assessments.

It’s the Sun’s hunch, though, that the existing testing strategy in the city’s kindergarten classrooms will ace this exam.

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