By Monique Dols- Mother of a Kindergartner and Early Childhood Educator

Stop bubble testing our babies!

October 18, 2013 at 9:12am

One teacher-mom’s open letter to Commissioner King on the serious business of counting in Kindergarten


October 18, 2013


Dear Commissioner King,


It appears that I have to take some time out of my day to explain to you why my just-turned-five-year-old son shouldn’t be taking your standardized bubble tests as a “Measure of Student Learning” (MOSL) in Kindergarten. I would think that the last sentence that I wrote would stand on it’s own and that I wouldn’t need to elaborate the point any further. (“Kindergarten” and “standardized bubble test” just appeared in the same sentence, in case you missed it.) Unfortunately, it seems that all of the research in best early childhood practices has been thrown out the window in the interest of what you call reform.


I was thinking of writing to you about all of the ways that this kind of testing is inappropriate for 4 and 5 year-old children. For example, I was thinking about how kids in this age range can’t sit still. Or how young kids have the tendency to cry and run away from being forced to do stupid stuff. I was also imagining how my son is much more likely to make an elaborate pattern on your bubble sheet than fill in “right answers.” (And this would be a much better use of his time and mathematical energies, actually.) I was also tearing up thinking about how the wonderfully empathetic minds of young children don’t understand what “cheating” is. I wanted to communicate how painful it is to me as a parent and educator to think about kids trying to help each other on the test, only to be told by their powerless teacher that that is not allowed.


So, I guess what I am saying Commissioner King, is that it crossed my mind to address you on all of the ways that this kind of testing will further degrade kindergarten. But then I remembered hearing that your children go to a Montessori school. And I got angry. Why? Not because I don’t think your children deserve an active, hands-on, developmentally appropriate, loving, playful, and artful experience in school. But I think all children do.  Stop bubble testing our babies!


Then I remembered that you don’t like hearing impassioned pleas of educators and parents. When we tried to compel you to stop destroying our children’s tenacity and love of learning at a forum in Poughkeepsie you arrogantly called us “special interest” groups and then canceled the rest of your public hearings. It sounds to me, Commissioner, that you are still developing the stamina, perseverance and grit that it takes to really listen to all the people who disagree with you and take their varying perspectives into consideration while building your own. So instead of going that route and getting all “emotional mom,” I decided to keep it simple and professional:

Commissioner King, you can’t measure student learning in Kindergarten using a pencil and paper bubble test. I’ll give you one example. On one of these Measures of Student Learning (MOSL) you ask children to select the illustration that shows 13 frogs. Something that seems so simple as being able to count thirteen is not really that simple at all. Let me explain.


While children are learning to count they show a number of behaviors in the process of counting actual objects that are not captured on this test. For example, if you give my son 13 buttons and ask him to count them, this is what will happen: First he will get a mischievous grin and say “A lot! So many I can hardly count!” This will tell you that he will probably have to work hard counting numbers in this range (it’s funny how kids will tell you what they need, if you listen). Then he will start counting. He starts by moving the buttons into a line, which shows us that he has some understanding that he needs to keep track of his counting. Then as he gets to 9 he will stop moving them and start just touching them where they are. This tells me that at 9 he has to start working hard to remember the counting sequence and starts attending more to that and less to keeping track. He may loose his one-to-one correspondence as he focuses his effort on the counting sequence and just hover his fingers over buttons as he chants the numbers. If I ask him to do it again, he may line up all of the buttons and accurately count them all, because the first time he tried got him warmed up for the task.


After he shows evidence that he grasps how to count 13, then I would ask him to give me 13 buttons from my collection. It is much more challenging to count out 13 buttons than to count a pile of 13 buttons. It requires my son to be really secure in his understanding of 13 because of different skills being juggled. The inconsistency of his counting 13 will tell us that my son is in the right range for his learning potential and I will look for lots of ways to give him 10-20 real life objects for him to count and manipulate in different contexts. We may call all of this practice in “composing and decomposing numbers to 20”. Though, as opposed to your seriously bewildering Engage NY modules, we don’t usually call it that when we are talking to 4 or 5 year-olds. Doing so doesn’t make our instruction more rigorous, it makes it more ridiculous.


At this point, my son is likely to pick out and start talking about his favorite button and how it is so shiny and how he loves the sparkly, rainbow-y colors. This may seem off task to you, and you may be likely to have me redirect him. But an experienced Kindergarten teacher like my son’s teacher would encourage him to play with the buttons. She would observe what he does, take his lead, help give him language for his play as he sorts the buttons by color, size, number of holes, “sparkliness” and so on. Play is serious work in Kindergarten.


This understanding of the development of number sense in young children is completely lost on your tests. Your system is so riddled in so-called “high standards”, and a can’t-reach-the-ever-moving-bar deficit model of education, that you have completely lost track of what makes for good teaching. I know that my child’s Kindergarten teacher is much better equipped to assess my kid’s counting than your multiple choice questions.  I am outraged by the very notion that you will assess her as a teacher using the completely unreliable “data” mined from these MOSL bubble tests.


Early childhood teachers are unfortunately used to being degraded, undervalued and our work rendered invisible. But enough is enough. We have to draw the line with tests that are an insult to our professional as well as common sense. Making teachers use an inappropriate assessment that is tied to their very survival as a teacher, will encourage them to do inappropriate things to kids. Tests that require kids to count frogs on pages will only encourage teachers to have kindergarteners count lots of frogs on lots of pages. Kindergarteners should be given meaningful opportunities to solve real life number problems, build nature collections, make beautiful patterns with buttons, describe objects and live and learn what it feels like to hold numbers of objects in their tiny, precious hands. They shouldn’t count frogs on pages.They should be getting dirty counting frogs in ponds.


Thanks for listening, Commissioner King. I know that you are working on your ability to hear criticism. I appreciate you sticking with me through all of this. I know it required a considerable attention span. Luckily unlike my 5 year old you do have the capacity for such attention, even if you don’t regularly practice using it while listening to teachers and parents. Practice makes perfect!




Monique Dols, mom to a Kindergartener and early childhood teacher


P.S. You know Froebel, right? He’s the guy that like, totally inspired Kindergarten and Montessori. Before he came along people used to think that play in early childhood was a frivolous waste of time. I know, crazy right!? What were they thinking?


New York State Alliance for Public Education (NYSAPE) – Organized parent groups from across the state are calling an action alert

Action Alert from NYSAPE – Please Post Everywhere for New Yorkers to start calling and emailing & faxing! 

Please call:
Governor Andrew Cuomo (518) 474-8390
Speaker of the House, Sheldon Silver (518) 455-3791
Co-Senate Majority Leaders:
Senator Dean Skelos (518) 455-3171
Senator Jeffrey Klein (518) 455-3595
Senate Education Chair, John Flanagan (518) 455-2071
Assembly Education Chair, Catherine Nolan (518) 455-4851
Chancellor Merryl Tisch (518) 474-5889
Call your

My name is ( ) and I demand the resignation of the NYS Education Commissioner John King. The shutting down of parents’ voices is inexcusable. Tens of thousands of concerned citizens disagree with the education reforms and the push to share our children’s sensitive personal data. Thank you for listening to me as the Commissioner should have.

Email and/or Fax:
Email and/or Fax Governor Andrew Cuomo: Fax # (518) 474-1513
Speaker of the House, Sheldon Silver: Fax # (518) 455-5459
Co-Senate Majority Leaders
Senator Dean Skelos: Fax # (518) 426-6950
Senator Jeffrey Klein: Fax # (718) 822-2321
Senate Education Chair, John Flanagan: Fax # (518) 426-6904
Assembly Education Chair, Catherine Nolan: Fax # not available
Chancellor Merryl Tisch: Fax # not available
Email your 
Email us to let us know you sent in your letter at

Suggested Letter to be personalized:
Dear Governor Cuomo, 

I’m writing to express my severe displeasure at Commissioner John B. King, Jr.’s decision to cancel the state sponsored PTA town hall meetings. As parents, we have legitimate concerns regarding the NYSED’s educational reform and data sharing policies that are affecting our children. Commissioner King should have the decency and fortitude to listen to our concerns and explain his decisions publicly. The shutting down of public discourse is inexcusable and counter-productive. I demand the resignation of the NYS Education Commissioner John King.

The current policies of the NYSED are threatening our schools and our children’s learning experiences. The canceling of these important meetings is further evidence of the Commissioner’s and the NYSED’s lack of transparency and lack of concern for parents’ input. Though the Commissioner is not an elected official, he is appointed by people that are, and as one of my elected officials I am requesting that you listen and respond to our concerns.

(School District) 
(City/Town, NY) 
Parent of # student(s) in xx grade(s)

Anna Allanbrook, Brooklyn New School Principal’s letter to parents, her transcript from the Sept 30th panel in Park Slope

Dear Families:


Many of you joined me last night for the District 15 Community Education Council at 7:00 at MS 51.  For those who weren’t able to be there, I include here the transcript of my words:


As we reflect on the new state test results, we need to ask “Why?”  Rather than guessing, I checked out the United States Department of Education’s website where I found frequently asked questions.  One was, “How does testing help teachers?”  We are told: “Teachers gain a great deal of information about the performance of individual students that enables them to meet the particular needs of every child.”


Never mind that results arrive in the summer when it is too late to use this data to change instruction.   


I would argue that today’s test scores do not tell us very much. There are few surprises.  If the test was too hard, the score will be low. Too easy, the score will be high.


This year we saw that although everyone’s scores went down, results followed the norm: schools with more poverty, special education and second language learners performed more poorly than others.


Another question at the government website was,”How is testing handled for children with disabilities and for those with limited English proficiency?” The answer? “No Child Left Behind requires that all children be assessed.”  How insightful.  No acknowledgement that these tests are completely inappropriate for second language learners and those with disabilities.  We already know they can be two or three years behind grade level so it makes no sense to test them on material that may be two or three years above it.


Uncle Sam continues, “Some say that testing causes teachers to teach to the test. Is that true?”  Embedded in the answer is the claim that, “If teachers cover subject matter required by the standards and teach it well, then students will master the material on which they will be tested. In that case, students will need no special test preparation in order to do well.”  


That’s a big if.  There was a time when test preparation was considered unethical.  Now, preparation for the tests is standard and in fact, at my school, parents will ask if we are putting their children at a disadvantage when we don’t do test prep.


Yet another question asks, “Do tests measure the progress of schools?” We learn that testing data determines whether a school is meeting the state’s standard of “adequate yearly progress.” Today this data is being used not only to measure schools, but to rate teachers from ineffective to highly effective in part by calculating the amount of student growth on standardized tests.  In fact, each child’s rate of progress could conceivably affect the careers not only of his or her teacher, but of other teachers in the school.  


What gets lost in this discussion is testing’s impact on the child.  I was fortunate to have raised my daughters before the era of testing.  They took tests, but there was no prep and no true concern about performance.  Yes, when the school year ended (and not in the summer) the score was included in the final progress report, but then it was forgotten.  Never did it occur to a parent to blame the teacher.  


No one considered that number to indicate eventual career and college readiness.  We understood that

education takes time, that there was always a developmental span between children and that it was okay if some of them didn’t test well. We understood, too, that the score was simply another indicator. We had no desire for our schools to be like Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”


Early in the age of accountability, standardized tests were much easier.  One year, a fourth grade class in our school received twenty-five threes.  Twenty-five

individuals had been reduced to sameness.  But we didn’t learn who could persevere in reading and math or who understood more complex ideas.


To some extent then, the rationale for harder tests makes sense.  Many of us are familiar with William Butler Yeats’ famous quote, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”, but test makers assume that knowledge can be thrown in the pail and then retrieved. Educators know it doesn’t work like that. Children learn by connecting what they already know with new ideas. When we cannot actively make meaning, we do not learn or remember.  


We understood the purpose of the new Common Core tests to dig deeper and to differentiate between our learners.  Differentiate they did, but only because last year’s tests were hard to do well on because there was no connection to the children.


Javier Hernandez in the New York Times said many teachers complained of inadequate trainingto prepare students for the exams.  This was not the issue.  


One of our teachers, Katherine Sorel, wrote a piece for Schoolbook in which she said, “As a savvy test-taker, I could usually identify which choice Pearson considered right.  And sometimes I couldn’t choose.”  These kinds of tests are weak measures of the ability to comprehend complex material, write, apply math, or understand concepts. Nor do they tell us what students can do on real-world tasks.


Another significant change between the 2013 test and the tests that my children took is the length of the exams.  My children spent less than one hour a day. Now, children must be tested for three days for each subject.  The test is seventy to ninety minutes long and even longer for students with IEPs.  One of my teachers commented, “My students tried to rise to the occasion, but found it totally grueling and some just wrote ‘something’ to finish.  Heads on desk, shifting in their seats, no amount of pretzels could help them keep their otherwise sunny dispositions.  And I’m exhausted:  I’d much rather be teaching. Either you can read and write critically on your grade level or you can’t – three days is unnecessary and cruel.”  


After viewing the process, a  paraprofessional declared,  “State sanctioned child abuse.”  A teacher told me, ”I had at least one child in tears every day.”  But the government website says only, “Although testing may be stressful for some students, testing is a normal and expected way of assessing what students have learned.”  


One other concern that needs to be raised is the price of testing.  Since 2008, we have seen reduced budgets with less money for basic supplies and substitute teachers.  But not for testing and teacher effectiveness systems.  Where is all this money coming from?  Would we be more effective if we had more money for the classroom and less for “accountability”?


These tests hurt our struggling students.  They have created a culture of competition amongst children, parents, teachers, and principals.  The numbers become more important than the satisfaction of learning big ideas.  We have given the message that we value more how children bubble in ovals than how they question or wonder about the world.


All for now,


Watch here:

Truth About Testing: MISCONCEPTION #4:Testing is a necessary evil.



  • Finland, one of the world’s highest-scoring nations on international assessments, has almost completely abandoned standardized testing.
  • Elite private schools in this country do not administer HST because research has proven it harms children’s cognitive processes for learning 
  • Complex thinking and skills are poorly measured by multiple-choice tests.
  • Portfolio and performance-based tools assess and foster more meaningful learning.

From: Research Brief #1: “Testing Today in Context”, CReATE, February 2012

“Some people still ask: Even given the flaws and drawbacks,don’t we need some form of standardized testing? Aren’t equity and quality ensured by standard, uniform measurements? Aren’t tests a necessary feature of a globally competitive, world-class educational system? Research shows compellingly that the answer to these questions is, no. Assessment is a necessary part of teaching, of curriculum planning, and of educational policymaking, but it does not follow that high-stakes standardized testing is the only tool that can be used for assessment purposes.”

RE Finland’s Education System: 

“While it is important to be cautious about what lessons and features can be “transported” from one setting to another, some of the features that appear to make Finnish education successful at achieving equity, the nourishing of individual students, and national economic competitiveness, include elements that U.S. educational researchers have long documented to be components of successful schools here as well. These include: investment in highly trained teachers whose work days include ample time for planning and preparation; an intentional balance of decentralization and centralization in governance, management, and curriculum design; the provision of resources for those who need them most; high standards and supports for students with special needs; as well as trust and respect within Finnish society for the work of educators. 


What is perhaps most striking about the Finnish education reforms that have been underway since the 1970s is the near-complete abandonment of high-stakes and standardized testing. Instead, Finland uses school-based and student-centered tasks that are embedded into the curriculum. Teachers provide formative and summative reports verbally and in writing, but the major focus is on cultivating students’ active learning. Surely, Finland must have some standardized tests? Yes, there is one exam that students may take prior to university, the matriculation exam. “is exam is not required for secondary school graduation or for entry into a university, yet it is a common practice for students to take this set of open-ended exams that emphasize problem-solving, analysis, and writing.”

“Research shows that highstakes standardized testing is counterproductive. Instead schools, districts, and countries around the globe are increasingly realizing that:

– the multiple choice test is poorly suited for measuring- let alone fostering- the complex analytical skills and kinds of critical thinking that children and youth need for meaningful civic engagement and economic success in today’s world. 

– Instead of testing for the ability to answer discrete pre-set questions, schools should assess students’ abilities to synthesize, to collaborate, to deliberate, to manage projects, to solve problems and to innovate creatively. 

– In place of compulsory end of grade tests, students need assessments that foster self-reflection, individual goal-setting and active learning skills. 

Over a century ago, our nation embraced educational testing in the pursuit of uniformity and standardization. While it is questionable whether this was appropriate even for early-to-mid 20th century industrialism, it is very clear that in the contemporary global context, more complex and standards-referenced instruments, like portfolio assessments and performance assessments, are viable and vital alternatives to high-stakes standardized testing.”

CEC15 HST Forum Anna Allanbrook, Principal Brooklyn New School, Sept. 30, 2013 from Grassroots Education Movement on Vimeo.

On Monday, September 30, the District 15 CEC hosted a high stakes testing panel with Deputy Chancellor Shael Suransky, BNS Anna Allenbrook, Leonie Haimson from Class Size Matters, Earth School’s 4/5 teacher, Jia Lee, and Fred Smith, retired NYC DOE Data Analyst and member of Change the Stakes.

Note to Test Designers: Bad Questions are not the Same as Hard Questions

Note to Test Designers: Bad Questions are not the Same as Hard Questions

“We have been hearing recently about how “hard” the recent state tests were.  We are told that they had to be “hard” because we have to raise the standards in order to make sure all our students are college-ready.  

Having proctored the fifth-grade tests this spring, I have to wonder where the folks at testing company Pearson went to college. From my vantage point, the tests suggested that the designers have had little direct experience with literature, history, or math.  The tests were hard in the sense that they were hard to do well on.  But they were hard to do well on because they were poorly designed, with little connection to the work that students should be doing in school, at the fifth grade or at college.”  Click on the link to the article to read the specific examples. 

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”

“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate!”

“Wagner was echoing his boss, Chancellor Merryl Tisch. Last month she remarked:

We need to do a great job communicating why these new test scores that we’ve just seen are not an indicator that there’s been no learning or teaching going on.

It is all seen as just a failure to communicate. And therein lies the problem.  The focus on communication, rather than on a response to concerns, demonstrates a lack of faith in the ability of parents and teachers to understand what is occurring. Parents understand the high-stakes testing rationale.  They just don’t buy it.  The interpretation of grassroots parental opposition as a “communication failure” communicates arrogance.  It is the ultimate “nanny state” response—you do not understand what we know, and what we know and do are best for you.”

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