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First Person

The Test Regime Reaches Kindergarten

We’re missing out on opportunities for growing and learning.


By Jamie Barnhill

Photo by Latish Edwards

One day last year, as I was preparing my kindergartners for testing, a little girl burst into tears.

The test was written vocabulary.

The children are to write all the words they’ve learned this year that they can remember in 10 minutes. They get no credit for a word unless they spell it correctly.

I try to keep things positive. I never use the word “test.” I say, “It’s a chance to show me how smart you are.” I joke with them. But she started crying. She was scared she wouldn’t know enough words. I said, “If you write one word, we’ll be proud of you.”

I always tell parents childhood should be a journey, not a race. But last year we spent six weeks preparing for tests and taking tests—at the start of the year, at the end, and in between.

This is not developmentally appropriate. At five years old, children should learn socialization skills, play pretend games, work with blocks, paint, sing, dance, and get a start on their academic skills with hands-on activities. That’s what we used to do, but 12 years ago, things started shifting. Now we don’t just read with children, we give reading assessments, and the assessments are getting harder.

All that testing leaves less time for authentic learning. I’m an outdoorsman. There’s a farm across the street from school and my best friend is the farmer. We go and pick pumpkins and the students learn this is where pumpkins come from, not Walmart. We carve out the seeds, count them, dry them, put them in the oven, and eat them.

We’re in a rural setting. One day on a nature walk, we found a deer carcass in the woods. We weren’t sure how it ended up there, so we had an inquiry-based lesson. They asked me, “Did you shoot it?” No, I don’t hunt here. “Did another hunter?” No, it’s not deer season and no one is allowed to hunt near school. “Is it one of Santa’s reindeer?” No, it’s a different kind of deer.

One student noticed that it was not far from a road, and its front leg was shattered. We deduced that it was hit by a car and came here before it died.

We brought bones back to the classroom and put them together like at a museum. We did art projects about the deer and wrote stories about what happened. They’ll never forget.

Another time, we walked to a catalpa tree with velvety leaves. They felt the leaves, and one student noticed caterpillars, not moving, with something on their backs. They had been stung by wasps that laid their eggs there. When the eggs hatch, the grubs eat the caterpillar.

Around Thanksgiving, I ask the children to write a “How to cook turkey” book. Some give all the details: “Mom puts her hands up in there and pulls stuff out.”

Homework includes helping parents prepare a meal. We cook in class, too, following recipes and talking about why it’s important to wash your hands. It all ties together.

Isn’t this better than six weeks of testing?

—Jamie Barnhill teaches fifth grade in Durham, North Carolina, but for the previous16 years he taught kindergarten.

Read what NEA is doing about the national testing obsession, and share your ideas.

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  • anc_dyn_linksOctober | November 2010
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