THE images of kindergarten children in Georgia last spring armed with No. 2 pencils taking standardized tests were disconcerting to many child-development specialists. Some educators maintain that these aspiring first-graders, and others like them, are the latest victims of a national obsession with performance testing. They caution that this trend to start schooling earlier or to subject young children to academic pressures and expectations is fraught with pitfalls.
Lillian Katz, director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Early Childhood, department of education at the University of Illinois, dubs this era as ``the scholarization of kindergarten.''
Although identifying children with special needs may be necessary, experts emphasize that a small child's mental abilities or performance cannot be accurately gauged, because children are constantly growing.
``What is happening in kindergarten in many places is an overly academically oriented approach to what a five-year-old child is all about,'' says Edward F. Zigler, Sterling professor of psychology at Yale University.
Dr. Zigler says testing kindergarten children is an oxymoron. ``We have to rediscover what children are all about. How could you fail play, or bead-stringing, sand play, or interacting with other five-year-olds?''
Three-fourths of the states in the country test kindergartners in some way. But only Georgia, under the Quality Basic Education Act, mandates testing all children in private and public schools before they can enter first grade.
The tally from the readiness test given to about 90,000 Georgian kindergartners in April shows that at least 92 percent of them are assured of being promoted to the first grade, Georgia state officials say. The test used in Georgia is a modified version of the California Achievement Test.
Dr. Katz says children that young are hardly a representative sample to judge the efficacy of a test instrument.
``The younger you test, the higher the chances of error; these children are not test-wise,'' she says. ``These children are an unrepresentative sample to test the validity of a test. Everything conspires to increase the chances of error.''
Children of the same age are not necessarily at the same stage of development. ``Children's intellectual development, like their physical development, has a kind of different rhythm for different children, so the five-year-old who fails that test may be a star at 6,'' Zigler says.
Even if only 8 percent of kindergartners in Georgia fail, he says, they bear the burden of being labeled.
``Giving a five-year-old child a message that you are a failure is criminal,'' says Zigler. ``Once labeled, the child adjusts his own aspirations, and this can perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many child development experts view formal early education as an unwarranted infringement on a child's right to a carefree childhood. The more desirable goal, they say, is to fashion a play-based environment that is literate, nurturing, and secure.
``We can't convince people that children are learning when they are playing,'' Zigler says. ``Now we have children in kindergarten being given reading-readiness tests, trying to draw between lines ... tasks that they are not [developmentally] capable of.''
But Joy E. Blount, a consultant to the state assessment programs of the Georgia Department of Education, points out that great emphasis is placed on a teacher's evaluation of a child, whether the child passes the test or not. If a child fails and the teacher feels the child should be promoted, the child is given an ``additional diagnostic assessment'' and a school-based team will review the child.
In an information sheet for parents, the Georgia Education Department outlines the intent of identifying children ``who need instructional assistance prior to moving into the first grade.''
``Their chances of success there, and throughout their school careers, are enhanced if they receive the help they need as early as possible,'' the sheet says.
A similar rationale is offered by Kenneth Rustad, director of assessment services in the Minneapolis public school system. He says the testing mechanism alongside teacher evaluation of children identifies children who need remedial intervention before they are thrust into the formal education system. Dr. Rustad says that fewer than 10 percent have repeated kindergarten since testing was introduced in 1984.
Critics, however, warn of other perils in testing. ``You ultimately get a test-driven curriculum,'' Katz says. ``Education becomes trivialized where those items or information not likely to appear in the test are dropped.''
``What we ought to be testing - if anything - is a child's everyday competency,'' says Zigler. ``Does he get along with his peers; does he enjoy the things the other children enjoy; is he on target in terms of everyday social expectancies?''
Zigler expresses a sentiment subscribed to by many child-development experts: ``First of all, every kindergarten experience should be such that no child could fail.''
Little children in designer clothes scurrying to ski classes or computing classes. These preschoolers are America's superkids - pushed by parents to get a jump start in the adult world.
David Elkind, a professor of child study at Tufts University, laments the proliferation of academic preschools, kindergartens, and the service industry designed to create ``superkids.''
In his book ``Miseducation, Preschoolers at Risk'' (Knopf, New York), Dr. Elkind writes that parents ``are victims of social pressure, of media oversell, and of the faddishness that marks educational practice in this country.'' He cautions parents who want to give their children a competitive edge.
``When we instruct children in academic subjects, or in swimming, gymnastics, or ballet, at too early an age, we miseducate them; we put them at risk for short-term stress and long-term personality damage for no useful purpose,'' Elkind says. Instead, he urges parents to give their children ``a strong sense of security, a healthy feeling of self-esteem, and an enthusiasm for living and learning.''
He warns: ``If we do not wake up to the potential danger of these harmful practices, we may do serious damage to a large segment of the next generation.''