Glory Tobiason: SRM Student Warns Against High-Stakes Testing for Pre-K

The former kindergarten teacher shared her experiences of raising the stakes in an essay published in The Washington Post.

Glory Tobiason, a Ph.D. student in the Social Research Methodology (SRM) Division, contributed a post for “The Answer Sheet,” a blog by Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post. In “A Cautionary Lesson in ‘Raising the Stakes’ for Young Students,” Tobiason describes the unexpected consequences of imposing high-stakes testing upon very young students who are still learning the social values of schooling and success in response to a recent policy of the D.C. Public Charter School Board to give standardized tests to children aged 3-5 in order to assess their academic progress and rank schools.

Glory Tobiason is a student in SRM.
Glory Tobiason, a former kindergarten teacher, shared the effects of high-stakes accountability in her own classroom in an op-ed for The Washington Post.

“The tests themselves are not new: they are assessments that teachers and schools have already been using for internal, diagnostic purposes,” says Tobiason. “What is new is that the public charter school board is requiring a new use of these existing tests: inclusion of these scores in the calculation of a school’s rank.”

In her essay, Tobiason relates an anecdote from her own teaching experience, where offering tangible incentives to her students for helping their peers successfully complete a lesson backfired, disrupting the typically harmonious learning environment with the children’s negative reactions when their “tutees” did not perform as expected.

“Teachers tend to their students’ academic development, yes, but they also cultivate cognitive, emotional, civic, and social development,” Tobiason writes in the Post essay.  “And classroom structures are the wireframes in which all of this learning takes place.

“Teachers of young children have an awesome responsibility.  The reflective, independent thought that we celebrate in older students is still largely nascent in kindergartners,” she writes. “We encourage (and support) high schoolers to define for themselves what they value, but preschoolers’ lives are shaped primarily by the choices of the adults around them.  And what makes teaching this age group so delightful is that, by and large, they have unbridled enthusiasm for whatever classroom structures exist.  But the other side of this coin, the more ethically perilous side, is that they also internalize those structures very, very easily.”

Tobiason says that while the motivation of educators and administrators to bring accountability to early education is well-intended, “Test-based ‘accountability’ seems to offer a simple solution that doesn’t require knowledge of pedagogy, content, or developmental psychology.  The appeal of this strategy to policy makers is understandably enormous, and the minor detail – that the strategy is deeply flawed and harmful to young students – gets overlooked.”

Tobiason is currently studying the semantics of language in education research, and the ways that questions are framed, research is conducted, and findings are reported.  She is examining ambiguous definitions, implicit assumptions, emotionally-charged language, and propaganda, while analyzing how they can derail effective communication.

“Trying to get inside of the heads of little kids, especially little kids acquiring and figuring out how to use language, is fascinating to me,” notes Tobiason, who has taught Pre-K and kindergarten in Washington D.C., Turkey, and Cambodia, and mathematics as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania. “Learning at this age is a non-stop process of invention and hypothesis-testing and discovery, and I love figuring out how I can support that process.  Also, daily conversations about dinosaurs and Spiderman and why blue is a better color than green just sort of make me happy.”

Tobiason is a graduate student researcher for the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA. She is working with researcher Margaret Heritage on resources for teachers to build lesson plans that integrate the Common Core.

To read Tobiason’s essay in The Washington Post, click here.