When my children were 6 and 8, taking tests was as much a part of the rhythm of their school day as tag at recess or listening to stories at circle time. There were the “mad minute” math quizzes twice each week, with the results elaborately graphed. There were regular spelling quizzes. Even today I have my daughter’s minutely graded third-grade
science exams, with grades like 23/25 or A minus.

We were living in China, where their school blended a mostly Western elementary school curriculum with the emphasis on discipline and testing

that typifies Asian educational styles. In Asia, such a march of tests for young children was regarded as normal, and not evil or particularly anxiety provoking. That made for some interesting culture clashes. I remember nearly constant tension between the Asian parents, who wanted still more tests and homework, and the Western parents, who were more concerned with whether their kids were having fun — and wanted less.

I still have occasional nightmares about a miserable summer vacation spent force-feeding flash cards into the brain of my 5-year-old son — who was clearly not “ready” to read, but through herculean effort and tears, learned anyway. Reading was simply a requirement for progressing from kindergarten to first grade. How could he take tests and do worksheets if he couldn’t read the questions?

But Andrew and Cara, now 16 and 18, have only the warmest memories of their years at the International School of Beijing — they mostly didn’t understand that they were being “tested.” As educators and parents in the United States debate new federal programs that will probably expose young children to far more exams and quizzes than is the current norm, I think often of the ups and downs of my children’s elementary education. What makes a test feel like an interesting challenge rather than an anxiety-provoking assault?

Testing of young children had been out of favor for decades among early-childhood educators in the United States, who worry that it stifles creativity and harms self-esteem, and does not accurately reflect the style and irregular pace of children’s learning anyway. (There may be some truth to that. My son, who suffered the flash card assault, was by age 7 the family’s most voracious reader.) Testing young children has been so out of favor that even the test-based No Child Left Behind law doesn’t start testing students’ reading abilities until after third grade — at which point, some educators believe, it is too late to remedy deficiencies.

But recently, American education’s “no test” philosophy for young children has been coming under assault, as government programs strongly promote the practice.

First there was No Child Left Behind, which took effect in 2003 and required states to give all students standardized tests to measure school progress.

Now, President Obama’s Race to the Top educational competition — which announced billions of dollars in state grants this month — includes and encourages more reliance on what educators call “formative tests” or “formative assessments.” These are not the big once-a-year or once-in-a-lifetime exams, like the SATs, but a stream of smaller, less monumental tests, designed in theory, at least, primarily to help students and their teachers know how they’re doing.

Some education experts hail the change as a step forward from the ideological dark ages. “Research has long shown that more frequent testing is beneficial to kids, but educators have resisted this finding,” said Gregory J. Cizek, a professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Of course, the tests have to be age-appropriate, Professor Cizek notes, and the Race to the Top program includes funds for research to develop new exams. Filling in three pages of multiple-choice bubbles may not be appropriate for young children. Likewise “high stakes” tests — like the Chinese university entrance exam, which alone determines university placement — create anxiety and may unfairly derail a youngster’s future based on poor performance on a single day.

But Professor Cizek, who started his career as a second-grade teacher, said the prevailing philosophy of offering young children unconditional praise and support was probably not the best prescription for successful education. “What’s best for kids is frequent testing, where even if they do badly, they can get help and improve and have the satisfaction of doing better,” he said. “Kids don’t get self-esteem by people just telling them they are wonderful.”

Other educators recoil at the thought of more tests. “The Obama administration is using the power of the purse to compel states to add more destructive testing,” said Alfie Kohn, author of “The Case Against Standardized Testing” and many other books on education. “With Race to the Top the bad news has gotten worse, with a relentless regimen that turns schools into test prep courses.”

He said genuine learning in young children was a global process, while tests look at narrow and specific skills, and good teachers don’t need tests to know if a child is learning. He added that for young children, good test results were more a function of whether children can sit still or hold a pencil. “These tests are being added in the name of accountability despite the objections of early-childhood educators who say they have no place in the classrooms,” he said.

Rather than a “low-stress tool to identify gaps in the learning process,” he added, “they are used as a club to punish students who need help.”

I will not pretend that raising children amid a stream of tests is a Zen experience, for them or for their parents. In Beijing, both of my children had subjects or grades in which they performed poorly. There was an entire elementary school year in which my son got consistently mediocre grades in math, in English, in everything, it seemed. It took endless parental cheerleading to maintain his self-esteem. And there were times when — yes — I’m sure he felt bad about himself.

But let’s face it, life is filled with all kinds of tests — some you ace and some you flunk — so at some point you have to get used to it. “Schools do a lot of nurturing and facilitating, and then it’s a bit of a shock for children when they have to sit at a desk all alone and be tested,” Professor Cizek said.

When testing is commonplace and the teachers are supportive — as my children’s were, for the most part — the tests felt like so many puzzles; not so much a judgment on your being, but an interesting challenge. It is a testament to the International School of Beijing — or to the malleability of childhood memory — that Andrew now says he did not realize that he was being tested. Will tests be like that in a national program, like Race to the Top?

When we moved back to New York City, my children, then 9 and 11, started at a progressive school with no real tests, no grades, not even auditions for the annual school musical. They didn’t last long. It turned out they had come to like the feedback of testing.

“How do I know if I get what’s going on in math class?” my daughter asked with obvious discomfort after a month. Primed with Beijing test-taking experience, they each soon tested into New York City’s academic public schools — where they have had tests aplenty and (probably not surprisingly) a high proportion of Asian classmates.

Source: New York Times – http://tinyurl.com/35wo5lk

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