Standardized Testing for Kindergarteners

The state of Michigan is currently experiencing an all-out crisis in terms of standardized testing.  Last year, the Michigan Legislature suddenly and shockingly voted to back out of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which it was set to utilize for the first time in the 2014-2015 school year.  Despite outright protests from the Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan Legislature forced the Department of Ed to hurriedly craft a new one-year test, the M-STEP, which was from its inception meant solely to be a stop-gap measure designed to placate the feds until we could decide on a standardized test to stick with for the 2015-2016 school year and beyond.

The M-STEP, which is set to take place this spring, has already been a massive failure, exactly as the Dept. of Ed. said it would be.  Just this past week, for example, an announcement was made that the M-STEP would no longer be a computer-adaptive test, as promised, but rather a fixed-form test.  High school testing obligations have also been changed mid-year, and the entire situation has been such a disaster that the Dept. of Ed is asking that this year’s data not be used in any substantive ways (other than to fulfill federal requirements to keep federal education dollars flowing to our state).

In light of that, it was especially surprising and concerning to hear Michigan Governor Rick Snyder promote entrance testing for kindergarteners going forward.  Why, with an already-impending standardized testing disaster coming for 3rd-11th graders this spring, would the governor want to expand the use of standardized tests to now include 5-year-olds?

“It would help us assess how well that huge preschool investment is going, what schools (students) went to, how they’re doing,” Snyder said, adding, “That would give us a benchmark to see how effective that is.”

Of course, to see how individual preschools are actually doing, you’d have to have data that tracked the students before they got to preschool.  Then you could try to assess the preschools using the ubiquitous “Value-Added” model so prevalent these days.

But wait.  Let’s think about what we’re really discussing here.  We’re talking about creating a standard assessment for kids who are just finishing preschool and are preparing to enter kindergarten.  What kinds of standards would even be assessed?

Well, it turns out that the state of Michigan has a list of desired preschool outcomes —  exactly 100 standards in all — that might well spell out what could eventually be included on a kindergarten entrance exam.

The problem with all of this is simple: many of Michigan’s 100 standards for preschoolers cannot genuinely be measured by a standardized assessment.  These include standards like the following:

“8.3.3  Shows growing independence in hygiene, nutrition, and personal care when eating, dressing, washing hands, brushing teeth, and toileting.”

“6.4.3 Progresses in responding sympathetically to peers who are in need, upset, hurt, or angry; and in expressing empathy or caring for others.”

“5.1.1 Participates with increasing interest and enjoyment in a variety of music activities, including listening, singing, finger plays, games, and performances.”

…and the list goes on.

Some standards, on the other hand, are much easier to measure through a standardized assessment.  These include standards like:

“2.5.3 Identifies at least 10 letters of the alphabet, especially those in their own name.”

“3.1.3 Develops increasing ability to count in sequence to 10 and beyond.”

You can already see where this is going: this kindergarten entrance exam, due to time and budget limitations and the general realities of what types of standards can reasonably be assessed, is going to focus exclusively on the more academic, easy-to-measure preschool standards on the list.  Things like the ability to get along with others, music, physical education, self-control, and a desire to learn will not be on the test.  Things like reading and math will be.

What is tested becomes what is taught.  Our preschools will be forced to move more and more toward an academic model, not a model that focuses more on the child’s whole development as a person.  An entrance exam that was designed to provide information about how Michigan’s preschools are doing will end up, completely inadvertently, causing great harm to those very institutions.

To Governor Snyder and everyone in the Michigan Legislature: Please, keep your standardized tests and their unintended consequences away from our five-year-olds.


As a third-grade math and language arts teacher in Michigan, I’m always on the lookout for innovative Common Core-aligned resources that will help my students to excel, particularly in the areas of problem solving, vocabulary development, and reading comprehension.  I recently found an excellent program, Mentoring Minds, which does all of that.  Mentoring Minds consists of a blend of online and print resources in the areas of reading, math, and vocabulary which are designed to enable a teacher to track student progress in real time, allowing for responsive instruction that can adapt immediately to students’ needs.

Make It Stick

In the midst of an era of education filled with reforms which are based primarily on money and polarized politics, Make It Stick is a welcome relief.  This new release builds on the work of others (Dweck, Kahneman, etc.) to delineate a clear, scientific approach to making teaching and learning more effective than ever before. 

Make-it-stickThe practices it supports — such as interspersing the retrieval of information over a period of time, forcing students to try to answer a problem before teaching it to them, using mnemonics — are all free to implement, and they work no matter whether you’re teaching to the Common Core or not, for any age level, and in any setting.

I highly recommend this book to all K-12 teachers and administrators.

Michigan: Fail a (Yet Unknown) Reading Test? You Fail Third Grade!

The Legislature of the State of Michigan is proposing a new law that would require all third-graders who fail a standardized reading test to be retained.  At first glance, this might sound like a good idea: I mean, how can anyone argue with the notion that getting all of our students to read by third grade is important?

Take a second glance at this bill, however, and a number of things become incredibly troubling.

First, the state of Michigan does not actually know what third-grade reading test they plan to administer.  This fall, third-grade students in Michigan took a MEAP test in the area of reading, but next year the state (after much debate) plans to switch to Common Core.  Michigan had planned to switch to a Smarter Balanced assessment in the spring of 2015, but this is still being vigorously debated.

If that assessment is chosen as the one to use to comply with this law, it is important to note that it is an adaptive test, not a standardized test.  On a test deemed so important that it could force a student to be retained in third grade, the students would not even all be receiving the same questions!  Not only that, but all extended written responses on the Smarter Balanced test are “read” and graded using artificial intelligence; no human being would ever actually read the writing in question.  Finally, no cut score has been set to determine what would be the threshold at which a child would be forcibly retained.

So, to summarize:  We might forcibly retain thousands of third graders (36,000 third-graders failed the reading MEAP test in the fall of 2012) based on a test that has never before been used in Michigan, with an unknown cut score, that is not scored by humans, that is not designed for this purpose, and that is adaptive instead of standardized.  Unreal.

Not only this, but no exceptions are carved out in this bill for special education students or for English Language Learners.  Should a dyslexic child really be forced to repeat third grade math for a number of years due to his reading troubles?

In addition to all of these objections, the science behind retention is dismal.  Students who are retained have worse educational outcomes (on average) than students of the same ability that are not retained.  This is not to say that retention is never a possible tactic to use, but it is a decision that should be made based on parent and teacher input, not based solely on one test score.

I urge everyone in Michigan to speak up against this bill (our state superintendent and educators throughout the state have been universal in their objections to this proposal, but public opposition to the bill is clearly needed as well), and if the bill does become law, I encourage schools to try to minimize the damage it causes by officially calling a child a third-grader for paperwork purposes only while still sending them on to a fourth-grade classroom for every subject other than reading.  It would be a travesty for our children’s futures to be so dramatically harmed by such a thoughtless, ill-conceived law.

Resource: Food Fights, Puzzles, and Hideouts

As my home state of Michigan sifts through its political gridlock toward full acceptance of the Common Core State Standards, it’s clear that math instruction in Michigan needs to make a major shift.  We are moving from a very low-level standardized math assessment (the MEAP test) to one that will be much more focused on having students apply their knowledge in complex situations (the Smarter Balanced test).  I personally am scrambling for fun new Common Core-aligned games, simulations, and real-world problems for my third graders.

Enter the book Food Fights, Puzzles, and Hideouts: Mixing in Math.  This 77-page book is jam-packed with a variety of Common Core-aligned games, activities, and problems for elementary students.  Whether you’re looking for activities for a math center or looking to find whole-class games to stimulate mathematical thought in your elementary students, this book is for you.

For folks in other states who made the switch to Common Core a while back, what other valuable Common Core math resources have you been using?

The Obsolete Know-It-All?

Ken Jennings, the famous Jeopardy champion who in 2004 won more than $2.5 million as he won 74 consecutive episodes, gave an interesting TED talk earlier this year in which he asserts that humans’ need to know Jeopardy-like factoids is essentially obsolete.  In 2011, Jennings famously lost an exhibition Jeopardy match against IBM’s Watson supercomputer.

So how does this apply to us in elementary education?  Is it really true that knowledge is no longer important?  We’ve always known that Google is the best place to search for anything from cats making crazy faces to articles containing certain keywords, but what does it mean for the future of schooling when computers are also more capable at answering naturally-worded, real-life questions than even the smartest human?  Is it time to give up on knowledge and focus our educational efforts entirely on things like getting students to work creativity, collaborate effectively, and ask better questions?  Or is there still some purpose in having students learn things like basic math facts, major dates and events in history, and scientific processes like mitosis and photosynthesis?

I’m still on the side of knowledge, and I’ll explain why in my next post.  In the meantime, what are your thoughts on the importance of knowledge in a world of digital know-it-alls?


If you teach elementary math and employ paper/pencil timed tests, you’ve got to check out offers online timed tests that are automatically scored and differentiate easily to meet a wide range of students’ needs.  Instead of giving all of your students the same mad minute or 5-minute timed test on paper, then wasting precious classroom time (or your evening) scoring them, you can have your students working precisely at their ability level and receiving instant feedback about their progress.  There is also a virtual trophy case that celebrates both students’ efforts and their accomplishments.  Check it out!