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Philip S. Cicero is a retired superintendent of Lynbrook public schools and an adjunct professor of education at Adelphi University.

There's a new testing movement on the horizon in New York State's public schools, targeting our youngest and most vulnerable students. New York State has applied for a competitive federal grant that requires applicants to devise a plan to implement and formally assess kindergarten students, beginning with the 2014-15 school year. This early assessment initiative was approved by the Board of Regents at its October meeting.

The Early Learning Challenge competitive grant, which was announced by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the spring as part of the federal Race to the Top program, provides states with the opportunity to improve the quality of their early learning and development programs, and close the achievement gap for children with high needs.

New York is eligible to receive up to $100 million over four years from this competition. Its application includes the development of a tool to measure and assess kindergarten readiness across multiple domains -- cognitive, social-emotional, language and physical-motor.

Concerns about this approach and how resulting assessment data could be used incorrectly or inappropriately have been expressed by some early learning leaders. Ben Allen, the public policy and research director for the Washington-based National Head Start Association, said, "We don't want assessments to be used to reward or sanction individual children or teachers."

Even if valid assessments are developed, Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University, worries that their implementation would be at the expense of play and exploration. These two very important instructional approaches used for educating early learners could potentially be compromised during the school year, as teachers begin focusing more on improving early test scores and less on the child-centered activities that are most integral to early learning.

But perhaps the greatest problem with such assessments is that a one-time, single snapshot of a 4- or 5-year-old gives little, if any, valid information to teachers. During this period of rapid brain growth and accelerated development, young learners need to be observed and assessed frequently and across a variety of situations. A combination of structured and naturalistic observations of children enables educators to gather developmental information across all of the learning domains.

The observational skills of an effective kindergarten teacher are second to none. And less effective teachers should be provided with ongoing professional development and training; a formal student assessment is no substitute for this. Observing children in the variety of settings common to the school environment is the most useful ways to assess young children. Evidence gathered from these settings truly reflects the actual performance and abilities of children. It isn't educationally appropriate to implement formal assessment methods on quickly changing, growing and developing 4- and 5-year-old children. Assessment results obtained on any one day could be drastically different from those obtained just a short time later.

Kindergarten students shouldn't begin their schooling with the burden of taking a formal test. Rather, they should be pursuing their interests, following their curiosity, and building new relationships. Child developmental theorists from Piaget to Montessori would agree that young children learn best by constructing their own knowledge in a relevant, engaging, safe and stress-free learning environment.

New York State already has mandatory screening in place for all kindergarten students, to determine their language, basic reading and math, and motor skills. If formal assessments for kindergarten students had any educational value at all, they would have been in place a long time ago. Certainly, almost any attempt to seek revenue to balance the state budget and support education should be pursued by the state. But such pursuits should never be done at the expense, or on the backs, of Long Island's 31,000 kindergarten students.


This is a corrected version of the op-ed. A version posted earlier omitted the surname of Sharon Lynn Kagan.


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