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Should Maine Give Standardized Tests to Kids Starting in Kindergarten?

Flickr/Creative Commons
Kindergarteners, like the ones shown in this Creative-Commons licensed photo from Flickr, may be required to take standardized tests if a ban being considered by the Maine Legislature fails.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine children below the 3rd grade would not be allowed to take yearly standardized tests under a bill before the Legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

Maine is part of a nine-state consortium that's developing and enhancing entry tests that measure readiness for Kindergarten.

Supporters of a ban on testing in pre-K through 3rd grade say such tests would sap creativity in the classroom and make young learners overly anxious. State education officials, though, say a ban would deprive them of valuable data on students' strengths and weaknesses as they begin their educational careers.

Most of the time, when Nancy Cronin appears before a legislative committee, it's in her official role as head of the Maine Developmental Disabilities Council.

"But today, I'm here for the most important role of my life," she says. "I'm the mother of Zachary Cronin, who is currently 5 years old and in pre-K."

Zach is doing well in school, says Cronin. At the same time, she worries about what lies ahead for her son. Teachers Cronin knows have complained to her that they're being forced to abandon fun, creative activities in the classroom in favor of curricula and methods to prepare students to take Maine's new, more rigorous yearly exam.

"As the developmental psychologist Piaget used to say, play is the work of children," she says. "Standardized testing is moving our classrooms away from children's natural learning methods and asking them to learn in ways that are developmentally inappropriate."

It's also, Cronin says, stressing out lots of kids. Should he stay in public school, Zachary may not be able to completely avoid this anxiety in the later grades. But Cronin says she doesn't believe he should have to deal with it now. Mattie Daughtry, a Brunswick Democrat, agrees.

"I submitted this bill after hearing concerns from parents in my district," she says.

Daughtry says her bill would prohibit standardized testing in prekindergarten through 2nd grade. Parents, she says, fear the state will soon insist on giving high-stakes exams to its youngest learners.

"I was also moved to submit this bill after hearing from several local physicians from children who had built up stress and anxiety associated with standardized testing," she says.

Right now, the state doesn't test kids below the 3rd grade. The nine-state consortium of which Maine is a part, however, is developing a plan to do just that.

Jaci Holmes, with the Maine Department of Education, testified against Daughtry's bill. Over the next several years the state will pilot new, play-based exams, beginning with a kindergarten entry test, with the goal of "generating a child profile of children's learning and development," she says.

With this educational blueprint in hand, Holmes says the state will test kids annually in kindergarten through 2nd grade.

"Through this project the consortium will provide teachers, parents, students, policymakers and others who care about education clear information on where children are in their learning and where they need to go next," she says.

Holmes says Daughtry's bill very likely conflicts with Department rulemaking requiring Maine to have a statewide assessment system. She says Maine's federal Title 1 funding also requires that the state monitor and track students progress, once they enroll in public school.

Worst of all, says Holmes, outlawing testing in the earliest grades would rob teachers and parents of valuable information on where kids are struggling and what kind of extra help might be needed get them back on track.