Testing, testing, testing
It is a standard in Iceland, I understand, that each 2,5 year old child undergoes a check related to maturity.
Since our first child - Sara Hrund turned 2,5 in August 2014, we recently received a letter from a local medical center inviting us for such check too. The letter, amongst other things, included the following explanation:
The check consists of 2 parts.
The first part, taking place at a kindergarten, is based on so called BRIGANCE screening scheme and PEDS questionairre filled in by parents. The goal of this check is to evaluate movement, communication and school skills of a child and see whether there´s a need for extra support.
The second part of the check, taking place a week later at a medical center, is a general medical check carried out by a doctor and a discussion about the outcomes of the first part of the check.
This much from the letter we got, so that you have an idea. It is important to note that our 2 children are bilingual with their daddy speaking Icelandic to them and their mum speaking Slovak to them. Occasionally, they´d also hear English, as parents use it sometimes, but the main languages of the household are mother tongues of the parents.
Since there were no links to webpages related to the tests mentioned above, nor any notes related to bilingual kids in the letter, I decided to do some internet search to get a better idea of what we were invited for, being cautious about the use of standardized testing in general. And this is what I found out in wikipedia:
Brigance was a special education resource specialist who created a comprehensive inventory of basic skills in the seventies for his own use in his work for the California Master Plan in Humboldt and Del-Norte counties in northern California. Colleagues urged him to find a commercial publisher. The Brigance Inventory of Basic Skills became an instrument for assessment evaluation, student academic placement, Individual Educational Plans (IEPs), and instructional planning.
Hm, I´d thought to myself. Interesting that Icelanders would be using exactly this. Well, having watched 1 youtube example of the testing itself, I got very motivated to be an observer at the check and so I asked, got a green light and experienced this:
I brought Sara to her kindergarten, as usual, mentioning that today, some lady (the nurse) would come and would talk to her. Sara goes off to her usual 'kindergarten business' and at an agreed time is brought to the corridor, where me and the nurse are already waiting.
Sara has not met the nurse before, nor has she been to the room, which we´re invited to. It has one big table in the middle (suituable for adults, so the chair for a child is adjusted accordingly), a few shelves with books and a big freezer making constant sound. So, there we are, Sara and the nurse sitting opposite each other divided by the table in the middle and me as an observer sitting by the wall, aside. The nurse pulls out a black suitcase and takes out her screening book and starts interacting with Sara and eventually poses screening questions.
Sara is grinning at the nurse, without saying a word and looking around and at me. So first few questions (name, age and gender) are left unanswered, very likely due to shyness, as the nurse assumes. As soon as a set of coloured cubes joins the scene, Sara seems to be opening up more and completes a few tasks she is asked to do. At some point, the nurse stands up and asks Sara to repeat the movements she would show. Apart from standing on 1 leg, 1 task is to be able to walk with feet being put in front of one another that Sara fails to do comepletely.
They sit down again and Sara is tested on her skills in expressing past, future and plural, which the nurse has big difficulties to evaluate since she does not speak Slovak. Well, the nurse is perfectly capable of telling whether Sara can answer the questions using Icelandic, but she´s not able to judge her ability to express e.g. plural, in general. That is why, I interfere at some point and ask her if it was OK to translate what Sara was saying. I get a green light and reassurance that Sara would get her points, as long as she answers correctly, regardless of the language.
Just to give you an idea, bilingual Sara has the following way of expressing plural these days: she takes Icelandic word 'mikið' standing for a lot and adds the respective noun (either in Icelandic or Slovak, which is very random). 'Mikið auto', would thus mean a lot of cars. Can she express plural? YES. Can she do it in Icelandic? Well, not quite.
The test is over and we´re reminded to come in a week time for the second part, taking place at a nurse´s office. There is, amongst other things, a corner specifically for kids full of toys and games and a small table and chairs suitable for children. While Sara is left on her own to explore the toys freely, the nurse goes through the results with me.
Sara basically failed the test and thus we should come in a month time according to the rules for re-testing.
At the same time we´re reassured that there´s nothing to worry about, since she´s bilingual and apparently, even many Icelandic children fail it anyway.
As a mother, I feel very confused at this point, as the test results show that I should start to worry, however, I´m reassured that there´s nothing to worrry about. On top of this, as I ask about the purpose of each testing question, as we discuss, my doubts towards the efficiency of this test are rising big time and I don´t see that such test would help uncover whether Sara needed extra support or not.
Hm, so let´s think further... what exactly ARE WE TESTING HERE? Why are we doing it particularly this way?
To say that there´s nothing to worry about, eventhough the child failed the test? To create fear and anxiety in parents that their child is not meeting some standards? And what standards? Who is the one to set them and how well do they reflect the needs - needs of who, I ask?
Didn´t we say that the test was meant to find out whether extra support is needed to help the child develop? I find it very important and precious that Icelandic society is ready to help and allocate the necessary support. However, I fear, that with the way current testing is set, the need of providing the right support at the right time is not getting fulfilled. Quite the opposite.
And to close off, just a few thoughts that struck me during this encounter:
While the nurse was going through the results with me in her office Sara would come and show us a few completed puzzles and posed quite some questions about the toys and built a few houses out of cubes and was very talkative.
Does it come as a surpise, that she would be shy and closed off and reluctant to answer some questions, when the questions are asked in a very unnatural way and by a person she´s not seen before in a setting which is unknown to her. Are we surpised that Sara would show much more of her current skills and abilities in a very natural way, when left freely in a setting with toys and games?
Where is the precious feedback from the kindergarten teachers of Sara who meet her every working day? Isn´t it more likely that kindergarten teachers would know quite a lot about Sara´s development than a nurse who meets her once in a few years time?
Last but not least, Iceland has rather high numbers of foreigners living in small municipalities in comparison to the past. The society is much more diverse than it used to be and it takes a while to learn the language. I´m one of those who speaks Icelandic (and is extremely interested in learning in general) and thus could find my way around the testing described. But what about numerous parents who simply don´t speak the host country language yet and are maybe both foreign. What would the same test of children of non-icelandic parents look like and how would the results help?
Being convinced that testing can be appropriate in many cases, the one described above needs quite some review to meet the needs present in the current, diverse and very fast changing society.
In the years of BIG CHANGES in education, we might be better off, training the kindergarten teachers to learn how to spot the signs showing that a child might need extra help and support, rather than putting 2,5 year olds into a testing setting that reminds of a traditional school testing setting but fails immensely to fulfill its purpose (at least in our case).