Kindergarten Testing Programs
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Most school districts conduct kindergarten screening programs to identify children about to enter kindergarten who may be in need of special help. These results are also used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of incoming kindergarten students and thus guide teachers in designing appropriate programs. In addition, school districts may use the results to identify low-performing children who may benefit from being held out of kindergarten for a year.
If your district has such a program, you and your child will likely be invited to school during the spring prior to her kindergarten entry. A school staff member, perhaps even a kindergarten teacher, will give your child a relatively anxiety-free, 20- to 30-minute test in an effort to gauge her academic readiness, language development, and visual-motor skills. For example, she may be asked to draw a picture of a person, answer the question “What barks?,” and name objects that you ride. A commonly used test to assess entering kindergartners is the Gesell School Readiness Screening Test. Screening tests generally yield a developmental age score. If your child receives a developmental age of 4 years 6 months on a test, this means that her school readiness skills are comparable to that of an average 4 year 6 month child. Advocates of kindergarten screening maintain that a child’s developmental age is a better measure of her readiness for kindergarten than her chronological age.
These screening tests have been attacked for being invalid and unreliable measures of a child’s abilities. Critics maintain that important decisions about a child’s schooling (for example, when a child should start kindergarten) should not be based on tests which are prone to inaccurate or misleading results. They also contend that that these test results may lower teacher expectations of student performance and engender feelings of failure with those who have difficulty. The weight given to these results in some districts has led to the unfortunate trend of some parents actually helping their children “study” for these tests.
Whatever test is used, the results should be interpreted with caution when administered to four- or five-year olds. Young children are especially vulnerable to distraction or distress while taking a test and thus the results are often not a fair measure of their true ability. Moreover, children this young are going through spurts of development, cognitive as well as physical, so that the results administered in the spring may not accurately represent the child’s skills and abilities in the fall.
The results can provide useful information about a child’s present developmental level but they should never be used as the sole barometer of a child’s ability. More importantly, they should never serve as the sole determinant of a child’s school placement, in effect as an admission test. That decision should be based on parent and teacher observations in conjunction with the test results.