Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Education: The Danger in Testing Five-Year-Olds

Stephanie Simon has an article for Reuters that alerts us to a disturbing trend. It seems the emphasis on standardized testing as a measure of academic achievement and teacher performance has been extended to helpless kindergarten children.
"A national push to make public schools more rigorous and hold teachers more accountable has led to a vast expansion of testing in kindergarten. And more exams are on the way, including a test meant to determine whether 5-year-olds are on track to succeed in college and career."

Heavens! We may have five-year-olds who are not college-ready.

"Paul Weeks, a vice president at test developer ACT Inc., says he knows that particular assessment sounds a bit nutty....But ACT will soon roll out college- and career-readiness exams for kids age 8 through 18 and Weeks said developing similar tests for younger ages is ‘high on our agenda.’ Asking kids to predict the ending of a story or to suggest a different ending, for instance, can identify the critical thinking skills that employers prize, he said.....’There are skills that we've identified as essential for college and career success, and you can back them down in a grade-appropriate manner,’ Weeks said. ‘Even in the early grades, you can find students who may be at risk’."

Yes it does sound nutty.

To consider the efficacy of testing and drawing conclusions from five-year-olds let us turn to Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. She has written a fascinating book called Proust and the Squid: The Story and the Science of the Reading Brain. In it she provides a description of the process a child goes through in learning to be an effective and efficient reader, the cornerstone of education. An important part of that process is physical maturation of the child’s brain. The act of reading requires that many components or regions of the brain function quickly and in harmony.

"This integration depends on the maturation of each of the individual regions, their association areas, and the speed with which these regions can be connected and integrated. That speed, in turn, depends a great deal on the myelination of the neuron’s axons....The more myelin sheathes the axon, the faster the neuron can conduct its charge."

"Although each of the sensory and motor regions is myelinated and functions independently before a person is five years of age, the principle regions of the brain that underlie our ability to integrate visual, verbal, and auditory information rapidly—like the angular gyrus—are not fully myelinated in most humans until five years of age and after."

There appear to be differences in this rate of myelination between boys and girls. Boys are observed to begin to read fluently later than girls. Wolf herself has observed perceptual differences between the sexes up until about age eight.

Perhaps the most interesting data that Wolf provides are the results of a European study.

"They found across three different languages that European children who were asked to begin to learn to read at age five did less well than those who began to learn at age seven. What we conclude from this research is that the many efforts to teach a child to read before four or five years of age are biologically precipitate and potentially counterproductive for many children."

At the age of five children are on the threshold of an important stage of maturity. One must also consider that the difference in age of an "old" five-year-old and a "young" five-year-old is about 20% of the child’s lifespan. There are going to be enormous differences because of these maturity effects. And forget not that little girls mature faster than little boys. So how are the geniuses who wish to predict college performance going to unravel all of these effects and deliver what they promise?

A test to evaluate the educational status of a kindergarten student is not necessarily a bad thing in that can be a means to assess progress. However, the tests can be used in ways that are risky for the children. Consider this comment from one teacher named Knutson who was interviewed for the article.

"In her view, the kids are far too young to tackle formal exams, especially in their first weeks of what is for many their first school experience. "Half of them are crying because they miss mom and dad. When you tell them to line up, they don't even know what a line is," Knutson said."

"Despite her frustration, Knutson acknowledges the tests have some advantages. The results help shape her lesson plans, she said, as she can quickly group kids by ability."

Group kids by ability at age five? Many nations with better school systems than ours strictly forbid ability grouping until a much later age. Finland, with one of the most admired and successful school systems, never bins students by ability—and they don’t teach reading until age seven.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story Of Success describes in detail how grouping young children by ability creates inequalities that propagate throughout the children’s lives. The effect is first described in a study of Canadian all-star hockey players.

"....an iron law of Canadian hockey: in any elite group of hockey players—the very best of the best—40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December."

Why are the best hockey players preferentially born early in the year? What is being observed here is a perfect example of accumulated advantage. The threshold for birthdates in determining which age classification a youth will play in is January 1. That means someone born in January will be competing with others born in December, nearly a year later. A year is a long time in the life of a child. The January player will tend to be bigger, stronger, better coordinated and more mature intellectually and emotionally. In other words they will tend to perform better. In sports leagues the better players tend to be selected for advanced training with better coaches and in a more competitive environment. They will also get more playing time. These advantages tend to propagate through their playing years rather than being damped out. This phenomenon has been noted in other sports where similar age cutoffs are applied.

Gladwell tells us that the same phenomenon has also been observed in our education system.

"Parents with a child born at the end of the calendar year often think about holding their child back before the start of kindergarten: it is hard for a five-year-old to keep up with a child born many months earlier. But most parents, one suspects, think that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. It’s just like hockey. The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years."

The size of this effect does not appear as large as in the sports leagues where physicality dominates, but it is measurable. And it does not take much of a difference in a test score to enable placement in a program for the gifted. Gladwell refers to data from fourth grade performance in math and science tests to support this case. He also finds data that indicates students born early in the year are more abundant in college enrollment lists than students born later in the year, supporting the claim that this effect persists.

Please! Can’t we give our children a few more years before we try to determine which ones are already on the path to failure?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Lets Talk Books And Politics - Blogged