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Second-Graders Matter

August 22, 2003

The most recent school scores provide some of the best evidence that testing second-graders is a worthwhile endeavor. Their year-to-year performance helps the state track trends through the grades and gives valuable signals about what works and what needs to happen next.

Even so, the California Teachers Assn., never a booster of the accountability movement, is pushing a bill to eliminate second-graders from the yearly exams, geared to state standards. It says the tests cost too much and stress the children.

At $2 million, the cost of second-grade testing is a bargain. Even eliminating all standardized testing in California wouldn't produce a blip in the state's fiscal problem. Yes, some teachers say children break into tears during the long tests. But 7-year-olds cry over playground tiffs too. And without concrete evidence that the tests harm kids, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the teachers union is more stressed out about these exams than the children are.

The funny part is that the second-graders have been champs at test-taking -- and teachers have benefited from this. Primary-grade students have shown some of the sharpest improvements since testing began, especially in reading. These rising scores told educators that the switch to phonics instruction and a standards-based curriculum was working -- and gave the state strong reason to continue supporting the expensive 20-student classes in lower grades that the teachers association likes so much.

This year, the state got its first indications that those investments were paying off down the road: Scores in late elementary and middle school finally showed significant improvement, bolstered by better-prepared students reaching those grades and by the introduction of standards-based instruction for older students. Conversely, reading scores in the earlier grades showed lower rates of improvement or flattened. State education officials see this as a sign that the primary grades got their big reading boost from early reforms and that further help -- in areas such as teacher training and innovative programs -- is needed.

It's true that the nature of 7-year-olds makes test results less valid among individuals or small groups. Lower scores might reflect a child's shorter attention span for test-taking or even fine-motor fatigue from filling in all those bubbles. There are ways to address valid concerns, by shortening the second-grade test or giving it in shorter chunks. In aggregate, over the years, second-graders have been an important part of the school improvement picture. Taking them out now would be foolish.

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