Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School

Testing of Kindergartners Is Out of Control, Says Children’s Advocacy Group in New Report

Photo credit: (ccl) Woodley Wonderworks

Photo credit: (ccl) Woodley Wonderworks

Studies show standardized tests and test prep are now daily activities in many kindergartens. Why? Molly Holloway, a mother of twin kindergartners in Bowie, Maryland, can’t understand why her children must take standardized tests every month in math, reading, social studies, and science.

“One of the teachers has told me that the kindergarten curriculum is what used to be the first-grade curriculum,” Holloway wrote. “What evidence do we have that this pushing is beneficial? While some children can handle the pressure, others cannot. One of my daughters struggles to keep up and hates school.”¹

A mother in Illinois writes, “In order to prepare kids ahead of time for the state tests, hard core curriculum must start in kindergarten. Our kids are not actually getting smarter. The scores are not increasing. And the rates of children with anxiety issues are increasing rapidly.”²

Recent studies in New York City and Los Angeles confirm what these and other parents have observed: standardized testing and test prep have become daily activities in many public kindergartens. Teachers say they are under pressure to get children ready for the third-grade tests. The 254 teachers surveyed in the studies said they spent an average of 20 to 30 minutes per day in test-related activity.

The findings are documented in a new report, Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School (pdf), released on March 20, 2009 by the nonprofit Alliance for Childhood. The authors, Edward Miller and Joan Almon, say that kindergarten testing is “out of control.” (Available is an 8-page summary of the report (pdf), including recommendations for action)

High-stakes testing and test preparation in kindergarten are proliferating, as schools increasingly are required to make decisions on promotion, retention, and placement in gifted programs or special education classes on the basis of test scores. In New York City, for example, kindergarten children take a standardized I.Q. test to determine whether they qualify for “gifted and talented” classes. The city is also implementing a plan to test kindergarten, first-, and second-grade children as part of schools’ performance evaluations. The test scores are used to assign letter grades, A to F, to all of the city’s public schools. The grades are then used to determine rewards and punishments, including cash bonuses for teachers and principals and whether principals will be fired and schools shut down.

“Rigid testing policies do not make sense in early childhood education,” states the Alliance for Childhood report. “Standardized testing of children under age eight, when used to make significant decisions about the child’s education, is in direct conflict with the professional standards of every educational testing organization.”

Young children are notoriously unreliable test takers. They can do well one day and poorly on the same test on another day.

“A major problem with kindergarten tests is that relatively few meet acceptable standards of reliability and validity,” says the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “The probability of a child being misplaced is fifty percent—the same odds as flipping a coin. … Flawed results lead to flawed decisions, wasted tax dollars, and misdiagnosed children.”

The National Association of School Psychologists agrees, saying that “evidence from research and practice in early childhood assessment indicates that issues of technical adequacy are more difficult to address with young children who have little test-taking experience, short attention spans, and whose development is rapid and variable.”

It’s not just parents who are up in arms over the tests for tots. Anthony Colannino, a Waltham, Massachusetts elementary school principal, is upset that his kindergartners are now required to take fill-in-the-right-bubble tests. “Now we’re all the way down to 5- and 6-year-olds taking a pencil and paper test,” he told his local newspaper. “My students and others across the state are being judged on reading material above their grade level.”³

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor early childhood education at Lesley University, said, 
“The vast majority of kindergarten teachers now spend some time each day on testing and test preparation, an activity that would have been considered irrelevant and even harmful in the past.”

In Las Vegas, Nevada, kindergarten teachers report that last year they lost more than 30 days of school to mandatory assessments. They have organized to lobby the county school authorities to reduce the number of tests and “return to the implementation of developmentally appropriate standards.” 4

And a kindergarten teacher in Zanesville, Ohio, wrote to her local paper, “All we are doing is stealing childhood from innocent children. Shame on our government for making us be thieves. Shame on them for not listening to what children really need.”5

Crisis in the Kindergarten calls for the use of observational and curriculum-embedded performance assessments in kindergarten instead of standardized tests. The argument that standardized testing takes less time and is therefore more efficient is called into question, argues the report, by the new data suggesting that teachers are now spending time each day prepping children for standardized tests.

The combination of unrealistic kindergarten standards and inappropriate testing results in two to three hours per day being devoted to teaching literacy and math in many of the kindergartens in the N.Y. and L.A. studies. As one Los Angeles teacher said, “Our students spend most of the time trying to learn what they need in order to pass standardized testing. There is hardly enough time for activities like P.E, science, art, playtime.”

These practices may produce higher scores in first and second grade, but at what cost? Long-term studies suggest that the early gains fade away by fourth grade and that by age 10 children in play-based kindergartens excel over others in reading, math, social and emotional learning, creativity, oral expression, industriousness, and imagination, write the authors of the report.

The report makes the following recommendations to educators, policymakers, and parents for ending the inappropriate use of tests in kindergarten:

  • Use alternatives to standardized assessments in kindergarten, such as teacher observations and assessment of children’s work. Educate teachers in the use of these alternatives and in the risks and limitations of standardized testing of young children.
  • Do not make important decisions about young children, their teachers, or their schools based solely or primarily on standardized test scores.

For more information contact the Alliance for Childhood. Contacts: Ed Miller, Program Director, 917-363-1982,; Joan Almon, Executive Director, 301-699-9058, 301-801-5293,



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