LAUSD parents and teachers in uproar over timed academic testing for 4-year-olds

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

This month in her transitional kindergarten class at L.A. Unified, student Maria Arriaga will be timed to see how many uppercase and lowercase letters she can name in a minute. She’ll be tested to see if she can sound out nonsense words like vot, pag and lem, and asked to read sight words like young, speak and known.

It’s a test intended for kindergarteners, but Maria is only 4 years old.

This year, for the first time, all TK students at LAUSD will be required to take the Kindergarten Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills, or DIBELS for short, a standardized screening test that evaluates a child’s reading fluency using a series of four one-minute tests. For instance, students are given one minute to name as many uppercase and lowercase letters listed on a page as they can. It is not known how many school districts use this or a similar test in TK, but educators say most do not.

Giving this timed early literacy test designed for kindergartners to TK students has ignited protests among parents and is raising concerns among some educators early childhood experts about whether it is an appropriate measure for children of this age. TK is open to all 4-year-olds in Los Angeles Unified.

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A University of Oregon researcher who developed DIBELS said it has not been validated to test such young children. “DIBELS is not intended for preschool students,” Gina Biancarosa said in an email. “I see this as an example of people using DIBELS for unvalidated purposes, but in the grand scheme, it’s not one of the worst ‘off’ uses I have seen.”

Los Angeles school officials said DIBELS provides a quick and valuable way to inform the students’ future kindergarten teacher about their school readiness, and is requiring TK teachers to complete them by June 5.

Michael Romero, LAUSD’s chief of Transitional Programs, said teachers can stop the test if a child isn’t getting enough of the answers right.

“We’re about promoting the joy of learning and exploration and experimentation, and the joy of school, and the joy of reading,” he said. “We’re not kindergarten. It’s about kindergarten readiness.”

But parents and teachers are up in arms. The problem, they say, is that the test is not intended for preschool-age children like Maria, and it tests for skills that do not align with the state’s expectations for what they will learn.

“I’m fearful that standardized testing will take away the joy of learning,” said Maria’s mother, Lourdes Rojas, of Carson, who recently attended a school board meeting in a bright yellow T-shirt reading, “We learn through play, DON’T TEST UTK.” “That can mess with their self esteem,” she said.

Rojas said TK has been wonderful for her daughter, who has learned everything through play, including how to spell her name. But she worries that prepping for DIBELS will “rob” teachers of valuable time, and that the closed-ended questions will cause anxiety without telling the school anything about a child’s natural curiosity and creativity.

“I don’t want my child to be labeled or judged as a kindergartener when she’s really not,“ Rojas said.

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In a statement, LAUSD wrote that the information gathered in a student’s screening will allow their future kindergarten teacher to tailor instruction to them. Instead of beginning the year by introducing letters, for example, a teacher might decide to skip that lesson and jump ahead to decoding and word recognition.

District leaders were careful to describe the test as a “screener” — which provides a quick snapshot of a child’s literacy skills — rather than an “assessment,” which would monitor a child’s progress over a longer period.

“Given the nationwide achievement gap in reading, Los Angeles Unified wants to start early in understanding a student’s performance level and accelerate learning to mitigate the gap, while providing all of the appropriate supports and resources,” they said in an email statement. “The screener is given by their teacher as a typical classroom activity that is naturally embedded into the day.”

They said teachers were not expected to teach sight words or other literacy skills, which DIBELS tests for. But a few thousand kindergarteners generally arrive at the beginning of the year already reading, and it’s not always obvious which ones to put in the advanced group, they said.

“As a former kindergarten teacher, it would have been great to have some information about the kids that were coming into my classroom,” said Dean Tagawa, executive director of LAUSD’s Early Childhood Education Division, in an interview.

L.A. Unified is not using DIBELS to screen 4-year-olds who attend their other preschool programs, including Early Education Centers.

Most other preschool children, including those in California state preschools and Head Start classrooms, are assessed using standardized observational tools. Rather than taking a test, teachers observe them playing in the classroom — doing puzzles, coloring, building blocks, caring for a teddy bear — and asks their families to offer their own feedback. Teachers then use that information to measure how a child is developing, including their physical and social-emotional progress. The information is used to make sure a child is developing normally, and that a program is providing high-quality care.

The standardized testing uproar at LAUSD is part of a larger conversation among California educators about what should be taught in TK. Is it really “the first-year of a two-year kindergarten program,” as the state department of education has called it, or is it more of a play-based early childhood program that should look more like the preschool around the corner?

TK has been around in some districts since 2012, but it was previously only for children with fall birthdays, who had narrowly missed the enrollment window for kindergarten. But the state is in the midst of a $2.7 billion expansion of the program to admit all children who turn 4 by the beginning of the school year. LAUSD has jumped ahead of the state; all children who turn 4 by Sept. 1 are already eligible to enroll.

“That’s a shift for the whole system, so we have to change the mindset and the practices in how we’re operating TK,” said Sarah Neville Morgan, deputy superintendent at the California Department of Education. “We should look at fostering a joy of learning and that curiosity and love of learning that comes in early childhood.”

Morgan said that in TK classes, school districts should be using preschool assessment tools that have been developed and validated for 4-year-olds. “If they’re trying to do a kindergarten entry assessment there are ways to do that, but we would suggest that happened more in kindergarten,” she said.

Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy, said it would be concerning if the results of an unvalidated test were used to start tracking a child in kindergarten. “The worry is it’s used to start to categorize the child as a slow learner,” he said. “Then it becomes an egregious error.”

Another possible concern is that teachers could “mainly focus on assessed skills and potentially start teaching to the test,” said Peter Mangione, who is a lead contributor the development of the California Preschool Learning Foundations, which are intended to guide curriculum development for all preschool programs throughout the state, including TK.

“I think that’s what could happen with any kind of assessment,” Mangione said. But DIBELS only tests a narrow slice of a young child’s development. “What we know is how your child is developing social-emotionally is as important as academic skills,” he added.

LA Unified’s current plan to screen TK students with a kindergarten assessment at the end of the year is actually a compromise. Last fall, district leaders announced that DIBELS was to be given three times this year, alongside a second screener called i-Ready that tests for early math skills.

“That’s like asking third graders to take fourth-grade assessments all year. It doesn’t make sense,” said Donna Dragich, a TK teacher at 7th Street Arts Integration Magnet in San Pedro. “It’s not developmentally appropriate.”

The issue soon became a heated topic in a Facebook group of about 800 LAUSD TK and early childhood teachers, she said.

Dragich and other TK teachers met repeatedly with the early education leadership team to push back on the district’s testing plan, and she said officials were willing to listen. They pared back the original plan to just one literacy assessment at the end of the school year, when they’ll be using the version intended for the beginning of kindergarten — when students will have to take it again.

“We’re putting these students through all this stress when they’re just going to have to do it again in three months,” said Dragich, who said she received a 90-minute training session on giving DIBELS. She has not started giving her students the test yet in the hopes that district leadership will still change their minds.

Dragich is concerned that the 4-year-olds are “going to have a negative association with testing before they can get to kindergarten.”

Dragich used to be a kindergarten teacher and said that even for older students, DIBELS was very stressful. “Even the advanced students had trouble staying focused,” she said, even when just naming letters. “They would get off track and say, ‘B! I have a B in my name!.”

Sayra Espinoza, a TK teacher at Overland Elementary School, said she was asked to give DIBELS to her students last year, when most had already turned 5. It did not go well.

“It was pretty confusing for them, and it was frustrating for me,” she said of the test, which took about 15 minutes per child to administer. “A lot of them didn’t understand concepts of print, so following along from left to right confused them.” Some tried to read the letters from right to left or skipped lines altogether.

None of her TK students were able to complete the full test.

This article is part of The Times’ early childhood education initiative, focusing on the learning and development of California children from birth to age 5. For more information about the initiative and its philanthropic funders, go to latimes.com/earlyed.

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.

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