Goals Advisers Urge New Twist to School Readiness
Preparing elementary schools for children should be as much of a goal as preparing children for schools, a new report urges.
Such "ready" schools provide a smooth transition for incoming pupils, offer high-quality instruction while they address individual needs, and commit to staff development, says the report. It takes a different angle on the first national education goal of getting children ready to learn in school.
"Efforts to improve school readiness," the report says, "begin long before children enroll in kindergarten. They begin with efforts to support families, educate parents, expand access to health care, and raise the quality of early care and education."
The report, "Ready Schools," is one of two early-childhood studies that were scheduled for release this past weekend in Washington at the winter meeting of the National Education Goals Panel, which is charged by Congress with monitoring the nation's progress toward the eight national education goals.
The second document focuses on appropriate ways of testing young children, a subject that is often controversial and misunderstood.
"Assessing children in the earliest years of life--from birth to age 8--is difficult because it is the period when young children's rates of physical, motor, and linguistic development outpace growth rates at all other stages," says that report, "Principles and Recommendations for Early Childhood Assessments."
The reports were drafted by advisory groups made up of university researchers and state education officials.
Assessment should be beneficial to children by resulting in either giving children extra help or better educational programs, the report says.
Tests should be valid, reliable, and tailored to a specific purpose. The report also stresses that some types of assessments, such as those that parcel out rewards and penalties, should be postponed until children are older.
Assessments of young children should cover the full range of development, including physical, social, emotional, and language, the panel's report says. If a child's first language is not English, that should also be taken under consideration. Moreover, the report recommends that assessments should include parent input.
Since the national education goals were first set in 1990, monitoring progress toward the first goal has been difficult, the report acknowledges.
"The panel could find no good data or methods to measure children's status when they started school," the report says. As a result, Congress in 1994 asked the goals panel to research and provide guidelines on the issue of early-childhood assessment.
"Ready schools" do monitor children's progress through assessment and hold themselves accountable for results, according to the first report. But those schools, the report says, also realize that "standard paper-and-pencil tests are usually inappropriate for boys and girls who are just learning to hold a pencil comfortably."
Schools, therefore, need to use a variety of strategies, including informal observations, to measure whether children are meeting goals.
The assessment report spells out four different purposes for assessing children: promoting learning and development; screening for health or learning problems; monitoring trends and evaluating programs; and holding students, teachers, and schools accountable.
"Serious misuses of testing with young children occur when assessments intended for one purpose are used inappropriately for other purposes," the authors write.
The report also strongly cautions early-childhood educators against using standardized assessments to make high-stakes decisions--such as promotion or merit pay for teachers--before the end of the 3rd grade.
But policymakers and educators have a valid point, the report says, when they say that the 3rd or 4th grade is too late to identify children who are falling behind.
That's why, the report says, more informal, "age appropriate" measures should be put in place to track children's progress during the earlier years.