Feature

The Uneasy Coexistence of High Stakes and Developmental Practice

That 'fluffy little unit' doesn't exist in an age of stringent state demands for accountability in the earliest grades by DONNA HARRINGTON-LUEKER


Beaufort County, S.C., is familiar with the pinch that can occur when so-called developmentally appropriate practices meet statewide standards and high-stakes assessments. A leader in standards-based reform, the 15,000-student district has encouraged its elementary school teachers to boost achievement by trading in ditto sheets and workbooks for performance assessments, multiage classrooms and a constellation of other approaches that focus on the link between child development and readiness to learn.

But like other states intent on gauging how well their schools are doing, South Carolina tests children at specific grade levels using traditional fill-in-the-bubble tests. And those state-level assessments have put Beaufort and its teachers in a quandary: Multiple-choice tests aren't what their philosophy of early education is about. Neither is the expectation that every young child will be at the same place academically at precisely the same time--something high-stakes tests at specific grade levels take for granted.

The result, says Steven Ballowe, Beaufort's deputy superintendent for curriculum and instruction, is clear and chilling. When a state issues a mandate for standardized tests, its actions can retard developmentally appropriate practices.

"We had to wean teachers away from the old practices," says Ballowe. "Now the pressure is on to return to the old routine."


High Stakes, High Stress
Nationwide, schools and school districts committed to a developmentally appropriate philosophy of elementary education share Ballowe's concerns.

In 1999, every state except Iowa had developed statewide standards in core subjects or was in the process of doing so, the American Federation of Teachers reported in "Making Standards Matter," its annual survey of state standards. Most also have published curriculum frameworks, benchmarks, teacher guides and other documents specifying, to varying degrees, the content of instruction.

That's been especially true this past year at the K-4 level, says Heidi Glidden, author of the report. In past surveys, Glidden says, most states had clustered standards that covered grades K-4 in general. This year, more states have developed grade-by-grade standards in these early grades, especially in reading.

Increasingly, too, the AFT survey showed, states have begun to implement high-stakes assessments in which test scores are used to rank schools, reward or sanction teachers or determine whether a child will be promoted.

But while such high-stakes tests are typically delayed until the 3rd or 4th grade, schools nationwide report increasing pressure to prepare 1st and 2nd graders for testing and even to change their curricula.

For at least a decade, North Carolina, a leader in the accountability movement, has prohibited using standardized tests in its K-2 classrooms because of the undue pressure such tests put on young children and the unreliability of the results among children that young. This year, though, at the request of several local districts, the state is piloting a program that allows as many as 10 school systems to administer the state's 3rd-grade pre-test at the end of the 2nd grade.

"Some districts have told us that it's better to allow the test at the end of the 2nd grade, with a teacher children are familiar with, rather than waiting for the beginning of 3rd grade," says Lou Fabrizio, the state's director of accountability services.

Though it hasn't taken action, the Massachusetts Board of Education also has discussed using standardized testing as early as the 2nd grade to increase accountability.

This year, too, Alabama will test all students in grades K-3 in reading and reading readiness. And in Texas, kindergarten teachers were trained this past summer to spot reading problems so that they can help their children prepare for a 3rd-grade assessment in 2003--a test that will determine whether the children will be promoted.

"We're in a time when people are tired of hearing there's a problem and instead want a solution," says Gwen Simmons, president of the Ohio Association for the Education of Young Children. Increasingly, she and other early childhood experts say, that solution becomes that school’s need to downplay exploration, hands-on learning and a flexible curriculum and instead drill students in specific, structured academic content.

Teachers especially feel the pressure, says Anita McClanahan, director of early childhood programs for the Oregon Department of Education. Rather than using what they consider best practice, teachers spend time drilling children to prepare them for test-taking. "There's a rub between what teachers know and believe professionally and what they feel they have to do [to comply with state mandates]," McClanahan says.

The message from her state agency office: "We tell teachers to stay the course and not fall into the trap of one more worksheet."

Ironically, in the early '90s, a state task force recommended that districts revamp their K-3 programs to include more developmentally appropriate practices. In the next two years, too, Oregon expects to spend $45 million on a new statewide pre-K program.

Finding a Balance
Principals and teachers echo McClanahan's concerns. In Ohio, where students take their first benchmark test in the 4th grade, kindergarten teachers remain insulated from the pressure to test or to change their curricula, but many 1st, 2nd and 3rd-grade teachers who are committed to developmentally appropriate practices are wary.

"The closer you get to 4th grade, the more pressure you get to change your classroom practice," says David Stein, principal of the Mary L. Evans Kindergarten Center in North Canton, Ohio.

Some of that pressure, Stein acknowledges, comes from teachers themselves, but it also comes from school districts that have increased local testing requirements so they can spot problems before the 3rd or 4th-grade test. North Canton, for example, has adopted a 1st-grade proficiency test to identify problems early, Stein says.

Sometimes, too, the pressure isn't a test but a textbook. Peter Cross, a kindergarten teacher in Fall River, Mass., teaches his students to count using seashells, cubes and magnets--real-world objects that involve children actively in their learning, proponents of developmentally appropriate practices say. Recently, though, the district adopted workbooks with tear-out pages that ask young children to copy numbers and textbooks that emphasize rigid pre- and post-tests. Though teachers aren't required to use the books in this way, Cross, a 27-year veteran, worries that new teachers might accept such structured instruction as "the only way to go."

Several Massachusetts schools that have adopted similar practices also have found themselves at odds with the state. "They're holding out," says Anne Wheelock, author of Safe to Be Smart, a recent book about creating a culture for standards-based reform in middle schools. "They're in the position of saying, 'This doesn't fit with our philosophy.'"

Among their concerns is that lockstep classrooms can take their toll on poor and minority children, especially in the early grades where a child's intellectual growth and development is naturally uneven. "These aren't lockstep kids any more than any other kids are," Wheelock says.

Shortchanging Initiatives
Principals also concede that they spend significant amounts of time balancing their schools' commitment to child-centered practices with their districts' mandates to show that students are making progress toward specific goals.

That's the challenge facing Sandra Love, principal of the Henry Bell Elementary School in Tyler, Texas. A lighthouse school for developmentally appropriate practices, the K-5 school attracts educators from throughout the state. But Texas is a leader in the movement toward high-stakes accountability, and in the last two years, the Tyler Independent School District has adopted its own benchmark tests in grades 2 through 5 to prepare students for the state's assessments. Every six weeks, students in grades 3 through 5 are tested to see if they've met specific district objectives in reading, mathematics and writing. First and 2nd graders take end-of-the-year tests on objectives for their grade levels.

To their credit, such tests provide teachers with data on student achievement they didn't have before, Love says, and teachers are able to use that information to improve instruction. Test results, for example, can indicate which skills and topics teachers need to cover in after-school tutorials or how they should group children for the next six-week unit. Teams of teachers from grades K-5 also review schoolwide test results to identify problem areas.

But such testing and data analysis take time and can shortchange the school's own initiatives, Love says. Teachers at Henry Bell already use their own assessments, including observations, student conferences and running records, to adapt their instruction to an individual child's needs, and they assess children's reading skills every two weeks on their own.

Caught between the district's mandate and its own vision, the school has had to focus on what's essential to the curriculum. "There's only so much time in the day, so we have to ask ourselves, where can we compact things and yet not give up what we believe is important?" Love says.

The Testing Toll
Teachers also have become more critical about what they teach. "That fluffy little unit that someone loves? Those don't exist on our campus anymore," Love says. "We just don't do something because it's fun. We do it because it's something the children need."

Karen Smith, principal of Lincoln Elementary in Corvallis, Ore., has seen similar changes at her school. A Title I school in which 90 percent of the children are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, Lincoln Elementary has been committed to developmentally appropriate practices for nearly 15 years. Until this year, too, all of its classrooms were multiage classrooms that mixed 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders or 4th and 5th graders in the same classrooms.

This year, though, two of the school’s 10 classrooms will be single grades, one 4th grade and one 5th --a significant departure from the school's practice and one that Smith attributes to the state's testing program.

"Because of the [state's] standards and benchmarks, there's just a lot to do at the 5th grade," says Smith. "So teachers have asked to give a single grade a try."

Fifth-grade teacher Susan Klinkhammer requested the change for practical reasons. For one thing, she says, the developmental range among students isn't as great in a single-grade classroom as it is in a multiage classroom, so Klinkhammer can focus more on Oregon's substantial goals and objectives. Another challenge: As a 5th-grade teacher, she has to prepare students to take tests in all the subject areas tested. Upper-level teachers, on the other hand, typically teach in specific departments and prepare students only for their specialty.

The amount of time involved in testing--18 sessions last year--also takes its toll on a multiage classroom. When Klinkhammer taught a blended 4th and 5th-grade class last year, students worked together until testing began in February. As the testing sessions approached, though, the class virtually split in two. To give her 5th graders the best test-taking conditions possible, Klinkhammer had to find something for her 4th graders to do and somewhere else for them to do it. That disruption continued through the second round of testing in March and April.

"I was working a lot harder than either the kids or the system to make things work," Klinkhammer says.

Perhaps most important, when she did change her practice to focus on the tests, the gains weren't worth the compromises she had to make. Says Klinkhammer: "I wanted to keep looking at these children as human beings, with emotional and social needs, and not be looking at their work and saying constantly, 'That would be a four and we need a five," a reference to Oregon's scoring rubrics.

"It's not about always reaching a five," Klinkhammer says.

Accelerating Preschool
School districts that have made significant commitments to preschool programs also juggle age appropriateness and accountability.

In 1996, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., public schools embarked on an ambitious plan to boost student achievement that included a prekindergarten program for at-risk 4-year-olds. According to district figures, 20 percent of kindergarteners weren't entering school ready to learn. Overall, nearly 40 percent of the district's 3rd graders were reading below grade level. Among 3rd graders eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, the percentage rose to 63.

To improve those numbers, the district invested $10 million in Title I funds in Bright Beginnings, a preschool program that combines developmentally appropriate practices with a focus on language and literacy. Putting together a curriculum that combined both elements was a challenge, though, says Mary Martin, the district's coordinating director for elementary curriculum and instruction. "These are babies," Martin says. "You want to accelerate their learning, but you want to do it in the right kind of a learning environment."

That environment includes classrooms with a dozen so-called learning centers, some devoted to blocks or dramatic play, others to writing, computers and mathematics, science or music--"the kinds of things you'd see in any wonderful preschool program," says Nancy Beasley, an early childhood curriculum specialist who helped develop the program.

As part of the program's literacy focus, children participate in four literacy circles every day, each circle lasting between 10 and 30 minutes. In one, a teacher might read a book, pointing out the words as she goes along so children can notice the letters, says Beasley. In the others, children sing songs, listen to favorite books or watch as the teacher models writing simple sentences on the board. The goal is to help children develop basic preliteracy skills, such as turning pages, following text and identifying and naming letters of the alphabet, Beasley says.

The program also emphasizes specific themes, all of which are linked to books the children have read. Classrooms, for example, might use Goldilocks and The Three Bears to talk about families or The Enormous Watermelon to explore the concept of growth.

Initially, the program had its skeptics, including some experienced pre-K teachers who feared the approach would be too prescriptive, Beasley says. Others feared the district would move too quickly with students who already were behind, pushing them in ways that weren't appropriate for their age or stage of development. The latter criticism disappeared, though, when teachers saw that the classrooms remained committed to developmentally appropriate techniques, Martin says.

To help keep the focus on what's appropriate, full-time literacy specialists coach preschool teachers in developmentally appropriate strategies for teaching reading, and the district provides workshops on developmentally appropriate practices as well. Still, "there are a lot of worksheets, and we get nervous about that," Beasley says.

Because of the program's success, teachers also struggle to keep class sizes small. "Principals want more students served [by the program], so there's always the pressure to put more in the classes," Beasley says.

A False Dichotomy
Despite such tensions, child development experts say, developmentally appropriate practices and state-level standards and accountability don't have to be at odds. "Like the Reading Wars, it's a silly argument," says Kurt Fischer, a professor of education at Harvard University. "Developmentally appropriate practice is not in opposition to standards, assessment and accountability."

Simmons agrees. "There is the perception that we either need to put kids through a highly structured, teacher-driven academic life or provide them with open, supportive, co-constructive environments. … But it's not either/or. It can be defined in a way that academic concerns can be addressed."

The most recent guidelines on developmentally appropriate practice from the National Association for the Education of Young Children emphasize as much. (An earlier version of the group's guidelines had been criticized for slighting academic content.)

Assessments are changing, too. In North Carolina, primary school teachers have begun using state-developed checklists for student progress that emphasize observing what young children do and are consistent with developmentally appropriate practices, says Lou Fabrizio, director of accountability services in the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Last year, too, South Carolina adopted a state-level test that's more performance-based--a development that Steven Ballowe, the deputy superintendent in Beaufort, S.C., hopes will ease some of the pressure. Other states, such as Florida and Colorado, have adopted approaches to assessment that emphasize what needs to be learned over a span of years in the early grades rather than any single year, says Gaye Gronlund, an early childhood consultant in Indianapolis.

District administrators in charge of accountability also insist that while states may set out learning goals and objectives, they typically leave flexibility to local educators to determine how they'll achieve them. "The state doesn't care how you get at it, just so long as you get it done," Rena McGaughey, director of assessment and accountability in the Tyler, Texas, district, says.

That's theory, though, teachers say. And what they have to work with is practice. "We're comfortable with the idea that kids walk and talk at different ages, but we're not comfortable with that happening with reading, writing and arithmetic," says Gronlund. "It's accountability that's the crux of the problem, not standards."

Donna Harrington-Lueker is a free-lance education writer in Newport, R.I. E-mail: dhlueker@ids.net