Can Kids Flunk Kindergarten?

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As the crisis season for college acceptances climaxed across the country last week, 102,000 Georgia youngsters sat through a multiple-choice test to determine whether they too would qualify for a higher level of education. In a series of sessions totaling 90 minutes, they scribbled their answers. Then they went home, where their families are sweating out the mid-May announcement of whether they would gain admittance -- to the first grade.

Yes, first grade. This year Georgia became the first state to require a standardized written exam as part of a "readiness assessment" that determines who passes and who fails kindergarten. Testing of various kinds is prevalent in three-fourths of the other states for evaluating aspiring first- graders. In Minneapolis, for example, kindergartners must answer a set of 56 verbal questions put to them on a one-to-one basis (last year 13% failed). Many Connecticut and Michigan youngsters face similar tests. But only Georgia asks all its tots -- in both public and private schools -- to sit down, No. 2 pencils in hand, and fill in the blanks.

The exam in use is a pared-down version of the California Achievement Tests. Children are asked to identify shapes, numbers and objects and solve rudimentary math problems ("Sam is the tenth person in line. How many people are in front of him?"). "It was easy," bragged Jesse Palmer, 6, after taking the exam last week at Tybee Elementary School, near Savannah. "I got every one right." Jo Buckley reported that her daughter Candace "thought of it as a game."

Not everyone is so nonchalant. Parents and educators alike have questioned the use of the exam at such a tender age and wondered just what it really measures. In North Carolina such doubts last year led state legislators to alter a law requiring first- and second-graders to take the CAT. "There was a general feeling that testing that early pigeonholed the children," explains Lee Monroe, senior education adviser to the Governor.

Child-development specialists point out that it is difficult to assess a small child's mental abilities, because they are constantly evolving. "It's simply a bad time to be testing," says David Elkind, professor of child study at Tufts University. A youngster who cannot recognize a square one week, he notes, may have mastered geometric shapes the next.

The perils of early testing became clear last summer to administrators of the Norwood-Norfolk central school district in New York. A shocking 61% of children hoping to enter kindergarten there failed a standard test for readiness. After they were consigned to a special two-year kindergarten, a study showed that the test had a 50% margin of error.

Still, there is little question that some sort of evaluation is needed for youngsters in any grade. "The big value is identifying kids who need help," says Ken Rustad, of the Minneapolis school district, where children who "fail" kindergarten are placed in transitional classes. Defenders of the Georgia test policy point out that the CAT is not the only tool used to determine who passes and who stays behind: the kindergarten teachers' recommendations are given equal weight. Edward F. Zigler, Sterling Professor of Psychology at Yale, nonetheless worries about the lasting impact of flunking a formalized test: "If a child at five is given the message that he or she is a failure, a self-fulfilling prophecy may be perpetrated." And he offers what many colleagues may regard as a final word on the matter: "Kindergarten should be structured so that no child can fail."