The experiment could involve tests as long as 90 minutes and change reading assessments for kindergartners through second-graders in the nation's biggest school system, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration has embraced testing. The approach dismays some parents and educators who see it as mechanizing education.
The Department of Education unveiled the $400,000 program in an e-mail Monday inviting elementary school principals to participate. About 65 principals have expressed interest, and as many as 12,000 pupils may ultimately be involved, said James Liebman, the department's accountability chief.
Principals who sign on will choose from five testing systems, each with math and reading components. They include workbook-like, multiple-choice assessments estimated to take kindergartners as much as 60 to 90 minutes per section, according to the Department of Education. Other options include roughly 30-minute-long tests pupils would complete on computers and 10-minute-long sessions face-to-face with a teacher.
Children in kindergarten through second grade are currently assessed only in literacy, through one-on-one, 20-to-30-minute-long interactions in which teachers write down their multiple-choice answers, Liebman said.
The scores on the new tests would not affect pupils' grades or teachers' evaluations but would yield a better picture of children's progress than current tests do, he said.
The city plans to evaluate next year whether the initiative is worth continuing. Liebman said it could help principals see how their schools are doing before third grade, when testing required by the 2002 federal No Child Left Behind Act begins.
"There's nothing about (the tests) that is designed to create anxiety or create a sense of evaluation or create a sense of being compared to someone else," he said.
But the head of the city teachers' union says that's unlikely.
"Once the information is available, the potential exists for school administrators to use it to track students and make premature assessments," said Randi Weingarten, president of the city-based United Federation of Teachers and its nationwide parent, the American Federation of Teachers.
The Bloomberg administration has made testing a centerpiece of its school policy, going beyond No Child Left Behind requirements. For each of the city's more than 1,400 schools, third-grade through 12th-grade test scores factor significantly in letter grades - which can earn principals bonuses or jeopardize their jobs.
The kindergarten through second-grade scores wouldn't affect school grades for now, Liebman said, though the Department of Education might take the results into account if principals requested it. Some feel the current grading system shortchanges their schools' accomplishments with younger students, he said.
The school grades and stress on test scores anger some parents and teachers, who say classes are being drained of creativity and reduced to drills on how to ace standardized exams. Critics fear the proposed assessment changes could turn even kindergarten into test prep, despite the city's insistence that the intent is only to guide teachers' and administrators' efforts.
"We're teaching kids how to get the right answers, not how to find the knowledge," said state Assemblyman Mark Weprin, a Queens Democrat with sons in public middle and elementary schools.
The rise of testing in No Child Left Behind's wake has caused contention nationally. Some studies show students' math and reading skills have improved, but that schools have cut back on history, music and other subjects.