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School Testing Debate Filters Down To D.C.'s Youngest—Preschoolers

How young is too young for high-stakes testing? That's a question being debated in D.C.
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How young is too young for high-stakes testing? That's a question being debated in D.C.

How soon is too soon to start testing students in D.C.'s public schools? And what should those students be tested on? Those questions are fueling a debate over a plan proposed by the D.C. Public Charter School Board to assess student progress in preschool and pre-kindergarten programs.

Over the last year, the board, which governs the city's 36,000-student charter school system, has worked to craft a common set of guidelines for charter schools to use when measuring just how well they are teaching children.

Currently, each charter school lays out its own goals and how it plans on measuring whether it has achieved them. Under the new plan, charter schools offering preschool and pre-K programs—some of the fastest growing programs in D.C.—would be encouraged to find common ways of measuring their progress.

According to proponents of the plan, the guidelines would bring some consistency to the types of data that parents and policymakers use when deciding how well a charter school is doing—and whether they’d want to send their child there.

But critics of the idea worry that the adoption of the common guidelines would lead to high-stakes testing of 3- and 4-year-olds and the schools they attend. The critics say that testing in pre-K programs would put schools under the same pressure faced by those working with older students, where high-stakes tests have led to accusations of cheating and teaching to the test.

Sam Chaltain, an education writer and parent, warned last week in a blog post that the charter board was moving too quickly toward endorsing assessments that would over-emphasize math and reading at the expense of more holistic tests measuring a child's emotional and social growth.

"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 percent of a school’s overall performance to student reading and math scores," wrote Chaltain, who has a 4-year-old in a charter school.

Even worse, he later wrote, charter schools offering preschool and pre-K could see their rankings drop if math and reading scores among its youngest students fell. "[I]t perpetuates the shell game of American public education, in which we use partial information to pronounce complete judgment on whether a given reform effort is working or not," he wrote.

Chaltain's missives prompted discussion on local message boards over the value of testing children that young, and led to an online petition to the charter school board asking that they reconsider the proposal. Over 270 people signed the petition.

His claims also spurred spirited responses from members of the charter board.

Last Friday, board executive director Scott Pearson wrote that the proposal wouldn't mean that students would face any new tests. That was followed by a defense of the proposal by Sara Mead, a board member who wrote that it would merely offer parents and officials an easier way to judge how well charter schools are doing their jobs.

"The reality is that, as challenging as it may be, the early childhood field is going to have to move in the direction of increased information about child outcomes," she wrote. "If we want to improve quality and outcomes in early childhood education, we need to do a better job of figuring out which early childhood programs are doing the best job of educating kids, so that we can learn from what they're doing."

The move toward such assessments isn’t new, and it isn’t only limited to charter schools: under the Race to the Top program, the Obama administration has offered up $370 million in grant for states to improve early childhood education—which includes being able to measure outcomes.

Students in preschool and pre-K programs in D.C. public schools are currently assessed three times a year in six areas: language, literacy, cognition, math and social, physical and emotional skills. But according to DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz, the results do not affect funding for the schools, which critics worry could happen with charter schools.

Mead says that the board’s proposal also stands out because D.C. enrolls more kids in preschool and pre-K programs than any state, and that unlike most states, the city’s charter schools take public money to offer those programs. “We’re out there on our own on this,” she says.

Controversial or not, making the link between early childhood programs and their outcomes is important, said Jack McCarthy, who runs the AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter School in Northeast D.C., on The Kojo Nnamdi Show on Monday.

"You need to measure that children are learning. You need to demonstrate each year that you're a viable organization. And you need to show that you're keeping the promises you made when you were granted the charter to operate the school," he said.

Chaltain agrees that schools and students need to be assessed, but he wants the board to amend its proposal to include measures that are more evenly weighted. If not, he warns, "We're going to end up distorting what schools focus on."

The board will vote on the final proposal in September.

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