While debates have raged as to the value and amount of testing that will come this spring with the state’s new online exams, little fanfare greeted the state-sponsored assessments that took place over the past two months in New Jersey’s youngest grades.
In 250 kindergarten classrooms across 25 districts, teachers were evaluating their four- and five-year-old charges and their schoolwork over the course of the first seven weeks of the semester to gauge their social-emotional development, as well as their fledgling literacy and math skills.
These weren’t the classic paper-and-pencil tests — or even online ones. Instead, a system developed by Teaching Strategies Inc. assesses a child’s written work or uses observations to see how well kids interact with their peers.
When the testing per se was complete, the resultant data for each child was compiled and is now being used as the basis for individualized reports.
Such is the beginning of new kindergarten-entry assessments (KEA) that within five years could be in every public school district in New Jersey. Entirely voluntary at this point, the main purpose of the tests, state officials said, is to get a clear view of children’s starting points in kindergarten so as help develop the instruction they will need going forward.
“These are areas — social-emotional development and literacy and math — that are on the minds of every kindergarten teacher at the beginning of the year, but they may never had the tool to speak to what they are doing,” said Vincent Costanza, the state’s executive director of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge programs.
The project was part of the state’s proposal for the federal Race to the Top grant in 2013, and the state had been piloting it in seven districts for the past two years. More than a half-dozen states have either started or are rolling out the KEA, including Michigan and Massachusetts, several of which are using Teaching Strategies’ GOLD instrument and others are developing their own.
The model itself has 10 areas of potential assessment — ranging from physical to the arts — but the state at this point is starting with just three. After this first year, New Jersey plans to introduce 1,200 teachers in each of the next four years to the test system.
The new assessments are also one piece in a broader approach the state has developed called Kindergarten Seminars, officials said, a five-part series where experts and trainers work with kindergarten teachers across the state on a host of best practices.
“This is a portfolio-based tool in the classroom that we know has a lot going on,” Costanza said. “Even as teachers are doing all kinds of things in their classes, this is making sure they are collecting evidence about their kids.”
Assessments in the early grades are nothing new, typically chosen independently by each district from a commercial service and used especially to screen for potential disabilities.
Still, Costanza and others acknowledged it can be a tough time to be talking about new state testing, in any form. While not an on-demand test where a child sits for the evaluation, officials said the state is nonetheless rolling this out carefully.
“We don’t know if we will require it,” said Ellen Wolock, the state’s early childhood director. “Right now, it is voluntary, as I think there is some reluctance to add another initiative to our requirements.”
Cynthia Rice, senior policy analyst for the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, was among those in the advocacy community that backed the proposal in the grant application, and she said it still remains an important piece in improving early childhood education.
She also had some questions as to whether it will be required and what kinds of reports will be generated, but she stressed this is a very different kind of assessment that has generated so much debate in older grades.
“I know assessment can be a dirty word, but this is not a sit-down test,” she said. “And if it can help us know where a child is coming into school, that’s a good thing.”
The 25 districts participating: