A low mark for testing

KINDERGARTEN is a little early for entrance exams. But the state of Georgia doesn't think so. It recently started a program of mandatory testing of kindergartners to see if they're ready for higher education - the first grade, that is. The Georgia program, like most standardized testing, springs from practical concerns. Educators want to avoid advancing children into something they're not ready for. They want to cut down the failure rate, and they want a clear-cut way of assessing progress. But for five-year-olds, particularly, progress can be far from clear-cut.

Some youngsters catch a ball before others. Some outgrow overalls more quickly. This doesn't say anything about the relative merits of children. And neither should one child's earlier ability to sit still longer or grasp printed words more quickly. Individuality is just taking shape in these early years, and it needs plenty of growing room. Most children have a talent for picking up needed skills as they move from class to class.

Tests tend to foster teaching aimed at good test scores and learning that's best described as rote. Rote learners, accustomed to finding the right answers to standardized lists of questions, are hardly what's needed in a world marked by constant change. The first years in school should instill a love of learning. Words on the page should spark excitement, not anxiety, in young hearts.

A teacher's greatest accomplishment is helping youngsters feel better about themselves by building on individual strengths and interests. Mandatory tests, which impose bureaucratic standards of knowledge on everyone, hardly serve that end - especially in the earliest years.

Efforts like Georgia's are aimed at preventing early failure, but could end up inducing it. Poor test results too easily become labels that stick to children and to parents, and in the minds of teachers.

That's not to say that many children don't have specific learning needs or gaps that demand attention. But perceptive educators can spot these needs and go at them without the aid of tests.

While Georgia has the dubious status of being first to adopt statewide mandatory testing of kindergartners, other states are eyeing similar programs. At a time when school officials are feeling growing pressures to show results, the impulse to test can be hard to resist.

Some educators have suggested putting off testing at least until third grade. That makes sense, as a start. Mandatory tests may have a place somewhere, but that place is assuredly not kindergarten.

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