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Group Warns Against the Narrow Use Of 'Readiness' Measures

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Washington

An advisory group to the National Education Goals Panel is circulating a report synthesizing research on factors that contribute to children's early learning and restating earlier warnings against the use of narrow standards to gauge whether children are ready to learn.

The Goal 1 Technical Planning Group has been assisting the goals panel in looking at how to assess progress toward the first of the six goals set in 1990 by President Bush and the nation's governors: that all children enter school ready to learn.

In a 1991 report, the planning group warned against using "readiness'' assessments to label or make decisions about individual children. It recommended gathering collective data on the condition and capacities of children at different points in time and from a variety of sources, including parents, teachers, and children.

The group also outlined five dimensions to consider: physical well-being and motor development, social and emotional development, approaches toward learning, language usage, and cognition and general knowledge.

The goals panel endorsed those principles, but asked the subgroup to expand and amplify them. To accomplish that, the panel commissioned papers by experts on each dimension, and the planning group synthesized their findings.

"This is an important step in the process because one of the biggest problems throughout the whole conversation is that we've been talking about a concept that was not defined,'' said Sue Bredekamp, a subgroup member and the director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

After soliciting comments, the group still must refine its report and seek the goals panel's approval, a process that could take a year.

More Than Cognition

The group's findings underscore that "early learning must no longer be regarded solely, or even primarily, as a cognitive issue,'' the report suggests, adding that those who work with young children should know the other dimensions as well "and understand how to translate that knowledge'' into teaching.

It also calls for: more study on dimensions about which the least is known, such as children's approaches to learning; greater responsiveness to individual and cultural variation; more attention to children's overall well-being than to "earlier formal academic instruction''; and coordination among the health, education, and social-service sectors.

The draft says assessment strategies must "clearly distinguish the purpose'' of the effort, and suggests that the kinds of measures needed to determine a child's eligibility for services or to improve teaching practices are different from those needed to monitor national changes in children's status.

Subgroup members have warned against using any single criterion or norm-referenced standardized test to rate individual children.

"The most important thing is for people to be clear about why they are measuring,'' said Lorrie Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado and a member of the planning group. "There is much less risk for large-scale data gathering, which does provide important information, than there is for a school-level measure.''

Program Improvement Eyed

There remains "a lot of concern about rushing into a measure of readiness that is too simple or too rough and dirty,'' noted Nicholas Zill, a vice president of Westat Inc. and a planning-group member.

But it would be wrong to hold off attempts to gauge progress on the readiness goal while awaiting the "perfect measure,'' he said, since "there's a lot we know from the literature about what aspects of these dimensions are predictive of longer-term difficulties.''

One useful source of data, he suggested, will be a longitudinal study of 23,000 kindergartners being planned by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is designed to reflect the planning group's recommendations.

Sharon Lynn Kagan, the associate director of Yale University's Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy and the chairwoman of the technical-planning group, stressed that the report is designed to be useful not only in developing better assessments but also in improving programs for young children.

The group is seeking feedback on the report, "Reconsidering Children's Early Development and Learning: Toward Shared Beliefs and Vocabulary.'' Copies are available for free from the National Education Goals Panel, 1850 M St., N.W., Suite 270, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 632-0952.

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