Monday, November 30, 2015

NJ Legislature looks at full day K this week

Camden resident and public education activist, Sue Altman, is guest posting today to call attention to an important bill up for a vote this week in the NJ Assembly:



Two important education related bills are up for floor votes in the NJ State Assembly this week. One bill will establish a task force to look at whether full day K should be mandated statewide

Is full day Kindergarten a good thing? On one hand, some parents say that not all little ones can handle being in school for a full, seven-hour day, and they would rather provide enrichment on their own; on the other hand, there are many families who might want and need full day school as soon as possible.

And, importantly, there are worries from parents and others that the mandatory kindergarten would just turn into hours upon hours of sedentary test prep and heavy academic work for our littlest, wiggliest students, who should be spending their days outside, playing and exploring the world. Test prep for little kids is an absolutely terrible thought— surely there is no test prep in kindergarten… right?

Sadly, there is. Given the stakes attached to tests in later grades, it is unsurprising the test prep starts early. The following is an excerpt from a public testimony submitted by Ms. Phyllis Doerr, a Kindergarten teacher in Newark, NJ, from the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in New Jersey.

The antics of the little ones in her class are at once a testament to the wonderful imaginations of 5-year olds, but also a sad illustration of why high-stakes testing affects all students, even when testing is not done in the grade itself. In New Jersey, there is a moratorium on grade span testing in grades K-2, but the long shadow of testing still hangs over those students. Who can blame the schools or the teacher for teaching to the test? These are predictable effects of focusing on this kind of narrow definition of educational attainment. If our education system is based on standardized testing outcomes, we will continue to see test prep infused into every nook and cranny of K-12.

Have you ever known a kindergartner? They are curious, silly, adorable, with a brilliant imagination. Why would we force them to practice ridiculous tests that conform to our weird, "rational," adult-view of the world? Why are we making the worst part of education (tests) the focal point of our whole system?

In another universe, I'd support full-day kindergarten. But in an era of scant recess, little play, no free time, and high-stakes testing, I worry that full day Kindergarten is excessive academic test-prep in disguise. I hope I'm wrong. At the very least the task force should contain a heavy dose of parents with small children.

From Phyllis Doerr:

In the Kindergarten grade level at my school we do not administer standardized tests. However, hours and hours of tests are included in our math and language arts curriculum. In order to pain a realistic picture of the stress, damaging effects and colossal waste of time caused by testing in kindergarten, allow me to bring you to my classroom for our first test prep session in late September... 
The test for which I was preparing my students was vocabulary. I say a word that we had learned in our Nursery Rhyme unit. Then, I read a sentence containing that word. If the sentence made sense and the word was used correctly, the student would circle the smiley face. If the word was used incorrectly, they should circle the frown. This task requires abstract thinking, a skill that kindergartners have not yet developed and this is a foundational problem for this type of test. 
My first sample vocabulary challenge as we began our practice test was the word "market" from the nursery rhyme "To Market, To Market." After explaining the set up of the test, I begin. "The word is market," I announced. 
One boy answered, "I like oranges!" 
"Okay, Luke is on the right track. Who can add to that?" 
"I like apples. I get them at the store." We're moving in, closer and closer. A third child says, "It's where you go and get lots of things." 
"Yes! What kinds of things?" 
"Different stuff." 
Another student chimes in: "We can get oranges and apples and other types of food at the market." 
"Excellent! Everyone understand market?" A few nod. 
"Now I will give you a sentence with the word 'market' in it. If the sentence makes sense, you will circle the smiley face, but if it is a silly sentence, and it doesn't make sense, you circle the frown." A hand goes up. 
"Mrs. Doerr, what's a frown?" I explain what a frown is. 
Next, I read the sentence: "'I like to play basketball at the market.' Now does that sentence make sense?"
The students who are not twisting around backwards in their chairs or staring at a thread they've picked off their uniform nod their heads. 
"Guys, listen. I'll tell you the sentence again: 'I like to play basketball at the market.' Does that make sense? Remember we said a market is where we shop for food." 
A hand goes up. Terrell says, "I like soccer!" 
"Okay, Terrell, that's great! But did I use the word 'market' correctly in that sentence?" 
"I don't know." 
Another hand. "Yes, Ariana? What do you think?" 
"My dad took me to a soccer game. He plays soccer!" 
"Thank you for sharing that, Ariana." She picked up something from the sentence and made what seems to be, but is not, a random connection. "Girls and boys, look at me and listen. I want you to really think about this. Would you go to a market to play basketball?" 
At this point everybody seems to wake up. Finally I was getting somewhere! 
"YES!!!" They cried out in unison. 
Of course!! It would be a total blast to play basketball at the market! 
So here we find another problem with this vocabulary test: a 5-6 year old's imagination. A statement that uses a word incorrectly sounds okay to a child whose imagination is not limited by reality. It is the same reason Santa and the Tooth Fairy are so real to kindergarteners-- unencumbered imagination.... 
Next, I tested a second group that I knew would have more difficulty. During testing, I walked around to see that a few students had nothing written on their papers, one had circle every face on the whole page, another had just circled all the smileys, and one, a very bright little girl, had her head down on her arms. I tapped her and said, "Come on, you need to circle one of the faces for number 5." She lifted her head and looked up at me. Tears streamed down her face. I crouched down next to her. "What's wrong, honey?" 
"Mrs. Doerr, I'm tired," she cried. "I want my mommy." 
It was a moment I will never forget. I took her test and said, "Would you like a nice comfy pillow so you can take a rest?" She nodded. I exchanged her paper for a pillow.

Ms. Doerr's entire testimony was published this summer in the Washington Post.

Sue Altman is a proud graduate of NJ public schools. She attended Columbia University, received a dual degree from the University of Oxford, UK in International and Comparative Education and a Master’s in Business Administration. She also worked in independent schools for six years as a teacher and administrator. Originally from Hunterdon County, NJ, Sue currently resides in Camden, NJ.


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