Friday, April 11, 2014

When Adults Test Young Children...Common Core Map for Primary Grade

Years ago when my son was a toddler, I was asked to review an online phonological awareness test for 4 year-olds that would have been used in a city as a screening instrument.  I was skeptical of such tests, especially when used with young children, but decided to take a look at the assessment and to do so with my son.

Seated on my lap in front of the computer we took the test together.  At one point in the test-- a letter identification task was introduced.  I knew that my son could identify all the letters and so I was really curious when he selected an incorrect letter choice. The task asked the child to identify a particular letter from a field of four letters.

"Why did you select the letter J?" I asked.
"The J was lonely.  He wanted to have a friend so I picked him. It's important to be nice," my son told me.

In the adult world that is attuned to testing and right answers, the test makers had not anticipated the child who might be more interested in the possibility of story than in correctness.  At three, my son had never taken any type of formal test.  He attended a play-based preschool and we did not have any type of formal tests at home.  The first time he ever saw a test was on that day while sitting on my lap.  For him, this was about play and making sense of the emerging story that the screens provided.  He was not schooled yet to seek the correct answer.  He had not been rewaded for such behavior. Rather, he was applying the lessons he had been learning at school and at home (be friendly, look out for others) to the tasks on the screen.  It seemed obvious to him that he could pick out the letter when asked.  So instead, he invented a new context--one in which he could apply the lesson he was more interested in thinking about, testing.

I am reminded of this story about testing and young children when I sat down to review this online primary test review.  The screen shot below is from the Common Core Map for Primary Grade (MPG). This MPG task reminded so much of the type of assessment that caused my son to select the "incorrect" answer for reasons that were more compelling than the test maker had intended.

Screen Shot from MPG
When I reviewed the online MPG assessment and I thought about the K-2 children I know well, I was surprised at how incredibly slow and mundane the test directions are and how frustrating the absence of being able to interrupt these long-winded and at times confusing directions might be.  For children who have been reared on iPads and their like, the wait time for each question to be asked and explained would likely prove a  frustration. I can imagine many children losing interest in the tasks by the forced slowness of the technology.

But beyond the technological and development issues, the concept of naming the right answer as a positive and singular outcome may not be the mindset of the 5 and under crowd.  Children may find other interests that are more compelling than the simple identification of the how many apples have been drawn on two images of plates, etc.  They may be telling themselves other stories as they make sense of what is before them on a screen.  Without asking, what caused you to do x, we may be drawing unreliable and inaccurate conclusions and sorting children into groups that in fact do not match their emerging needs and strengths.

It is not surprising then that NAEYC's  guidelines about curriculum for birth to 8 year olds states:

14. Curriculum values children’s constructive errors and does not prematurely limit exploration and experimentation for sake of ensuring “right” answers.

Multiple choice tests, by their design, limit exploration and experimentation for the sake of ensuring correct answers. It worries me to see the use of online multi choice tasks as a way to screen and diagnose literacy strengths and needs of primary grade children. 

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