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Goals Panel Adopts Plan To Develop Early-Childhood Assessment System

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By Deborah L. Cohen

WASHINGTON--The National Education Goals Panel has approved a resolution to move forward in developing a comprehensive early-childhood assessment system to help gauge children's readiness for school.

The assessment system, which would highlight children's social and emotional maturity and physical and mental well-being as well as their intellectual skills, would be used to chart the nation's progress in meeting the first of the six goals set by the President and the nation's governors. That goal states that all children will enter school ready to learn by the year 2000.

Acknowledging that the assessment system could take several years to develop, the panel also agreed to explore "interim measures'' to help monitor children's progress through such means as teacher observations. The resolution, adopted late last month, also "encourages the creation'' of educational materials and programs to help parents foster their children's school readiness.

Addressing Goal 2, which aims to increase the nation's high-school graduation rate to 90 percent by the year 2000, the panel also agreed to support the "continued development'' of a voluntary student-record system, maintained at the state and local levels, to collect uniform data on school completion.

The panel's meeting March 27 was its first since it was reconfigured to provide greater political balance and give Congressional representatives voting power. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

New members in attendance included Govs. Howard Dean of Vermont, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and Barbara Roberts of Oregon, and Senators Jeff Bingaman, Democrat of New Mexico, and Thad Cochran, Republican of Mississippi.

Other new voting members include Representatives Bill Goodling, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Dale Kildee, Democrat of Michigan. It was also the first meeting under the panel's new executive director, Wilmer Cody, formerly the state superintendent of schools in Louisiana.

'Historically Important'

Citing the inadequacy of existing tools to assess school readiness, the first "report card'' charting progress on the goals, issued last fall, contained an "incomplete'' grade for Goal 1. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1991.)

In its resolution last month, the goals panel essentially backed a strategy proposed in September by a technical-planning subgroup studying Goal 1 assessment issues. (See Education Week, Feb. 12, 1992.)

The group advanced a conception of readiness encompassing, in addition to cognition and general knowledge, physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional maturity, approaches to learning, and language use. The assessment would gauge children's progress in each of those areas at several points in the kindergarten year, using data from multiple sources such as teachers, parents, child profiles, and portfolios of student work.

To avoid stigmatizing or categorizing children, the data would be reported on a "technically sound, representative sample of students.''

The system also would gather data on children's family and preschool experiences before they entered school.

In a presentation at the March meeting, Ernest L. Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and head of the panel's Goal 1 resource group, called the resolution "historically important'' in embracing a multidimensional view of readiness.

The approach endorsed by the panel reflects "a growing understanding of the complexities associated with this whole readiness goal,'' said Sharon Lynn Kagan, a senior associate at Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy who chaired the technical subgroup.

Interim Measures

However, citing concern that the system would not provide information soon enough or help parents gauge their own children's readiness for school, some goals-panel members urged that surveys of teachers or progress reports by parents be used to provide data in the interim.

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado suggested, for example, that within a year, all parents of children under age 6 be given a form to fill in to help monitor their own children.

"This would begin to communicate what we think is important'' to help influence parents, he said.

"We need to accelerate this process and engage parents in the evolution of these criteria,'' Mr. Romer said later in an interview.

Mr. Boyer and Ms. Kagan were receptive to exploring interim strategies to monitor progress and aid parents, as long as they do not "derail'' the long-term goals of a broader assessment. But they urged against moving too quickly, arguing that the assessment system backed by the panel would offer ample opportunities to involve, help, and communicate with parents.

Gov. Carroll Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, the chairman of the goals panel, also voiced reservations about adopting too prescriptive an approach toward parents. "Who decides what you tell the parents what to do?'' he asked.

In its resolution, the panel agreed to encourage the use of "existing interim measures'' such as teacher judgments--provided they are congruent with the overall assessment plan--and to support the creation of "developmentally appropriate educational tools'' to help both parents and teachers address school-readiness issues.

One approach offered by panelists was to promote programs like Missouri's "Parents as Teachers,'' which offers home visits, parenting education, and other services to help parents spur young children's learning.

Next steps in the development of the early-childhood assessment system are expected to be discussed at the panel's next meeting, on June 15.

Keeping Goal 2 on Track

Turning to Goal 2, the goals panel essentially agreed to back efforts that have been under way for some time by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Council of Chief State School Officers to help states and school systems develop more efficient and consistent student-record systems.

The panel's resolution would build on such systems by encouraging the standardization of data on student enrollment, demographic characteristics, and reporting of different types of high-school completion credentials. A key goal is to keep better track of students as they transfer from school to school.

The resolution calls for exploring the feasibility of using such a system to help assess progress on several goals. But the panel has been "reluctant'' to endorse a records system as broad as the one advanced by a technical subgroup on Goal 2, which would analyze demographic, dropout, and student-performance data "in the context of the broader educational goals,'' noted Aaron M. Pallas, an associate professor of educational administration at Michigan State University and member of that subgroup.

A survey Mr. Pallas directed for the panel, which he summarized at the meeting, showed that one in six states already has a comprehensive statewide student-record system and that nearly three-quarters are considering implementing one.

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