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Calif. Plan Reshapes Early Grades

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Washington--A state task force will recommend that California "reconfigure" its programs for 4- to 6-year-olds into a single "lower primary unit," the panel's co-chairman said here last week.

The group's forthcoming report will also urge school districts to stop using "readiness" tests to exclude children from kindergarten or place them in transitional programs, according to the panelist, Carollee Howes.

Ms. Howes, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles, presented a summary of the report at a meeting of the National Association of State Boards of Education's task force on early-childhood education.

Wide Canvass for Advice

California's 18-member panel on school readiness--appointed last March by Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig--surveyed research data, held public hearings, and heard testimony from 400 witnesses, Ms. Howes said.

Its members include teachers, school administrators, parents, legislators, and early-childhood specialists.

Under the group's proposal, the new primary unit would replace separate pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and 1st-grade programs.

Although the panel does not endorse mandatory schooling for 4-year-olds, it advises the state to encourage early enrollment by lowering its minimum school-entrance age from 4 years and 9 months to 3 years and 9 months.

The state education department is nearing completion of the final draft of the report, according to Robert Agee, deputy superintendent for field services. Department officials are preparing a cost analysis of the proposals, he said.

'Readiness' Tests

On the issue of "readiness" policies, the report summary says, the panel found "serious problems with both the reliability and validity'' of tests used to determine when children should enter kindergarten.

Increasing numbers of schools in the state are using such tests to track children into two-year kindergarten programs or counsel parents to delay children's entry into school, the panel concluded.

Its report urges districts to discontinue the use of intelligence or school-readiness tests "for the placement or exclusion of children in their first formal school experience."

The panel also found that kindergarten-retention rates in the state are rising, partly as a result of increased testing.

The summary cites data indicating that kindergarten retention is "disadvantageous for children's academic achievement, social adjustment, social concept, and attitudes towards school."

It also concludes that "junior" or transitional programs that add an extra year to kindergarten "are not beneficial to children."

Those conclusions echo a strongly worded statement on such practices adopted last fall by the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education. (See Education Week, Dec. 2, 1987.)

The California report reflects--and could help reinforce--growing opposition to kindergarten testing, retention, entry policies, and transition classes, according to Harriet A. Egertson, a former president of the association.

"If they're saying the same thing as those of us who have been crying in the wilderness," she said last week, "then it begins to have a lot of impact," particularly given California's size and its influence nationwide.

'Skill Specific' Curricula

The curricula used in early-childhood education also drew criticism from the California panel.

Most California kindergarten and 1st-grade classes "are characterized by a skill-specific formal instructional approach," according to the summary presented by Ms. Howes.

Such programs, it contends, are "inconsistent with the development and learning" styles of children in that age range.

It urges districts to adopt flexible curricula that allow children to progress at their own rates.

The panel endorses the National Association for the Education of Young Children's guidelines on "developmentally appropriate practice" for young children, which discourage "forced" learning at young ages and stress the value of exploration and play.

Under the panel's proposal for a "lower primary unit," completion of the unit would be based on meeting goals in such areas as language, cognitive, and physical development; social competence; self-esteem; and "intrinsic motivation."

Other Recommendations

The task force also recommends:

Continuing the state's practice of serving 4-year-olds through a variety of public and private nonprofit agencies. California now provides subsidized care for 100,000 low-income children through contracts with child-care centers.

Reducing class sizes, currently exceeding 30 students, to 24 pupils for one teacher and one aide.

Requiring that teachers be trained in early-childhood education and child development and be "appropriately remunerated."

Requiring districts to coordinate programs with prior and subsequent schooling and with before- and after-school child-care services.

In addition to Ms. Howes's presentation, nasbe's 25-member task force on early education heard from a number of national experts in the field.

The task force, formed last year to a lay out a new agenda for the schooling of 4- to 8-year-olds, will begin regional hearings next month. The group will issue a report later this year.

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