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Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as NCES Launches Broad Study on Early Childhood

NCES Launches Broad Study on Early Childhood

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A small, well-trained army of research assistants fanned out into the nation's kindergarten classes this fall as part of a massive new federal effort to track children's learning and development from the start of school to the end of 5th grade.

The study is the first of its kind to probe children's early learning experiences on such a grand scale. In all, hundreds of assessors are individually testing 21,000 kindergartners in 1,000 public and private schools and interviewing the children's parents and teachers.

"This is going to be one of the most powerful studies the NCES has ever done," said Pascal D. Forgione Jr., the commissioner of the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, which oversees the project.

As big as it is, however, the program is just one of several studies the agency is planning to roll out over the next few years in its ongoing cycle of research programs. In addition to tracking kindergartners, for example, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study will begin in 2000 following 12,000 newborns through their 6th birthdays.

Federal statisticians are also slated to readminister the Third International Mathematics and Science Study to a nationally representative sample of 8th graders this May.

When the 41-nation study was given the first time in 1995, U.S. 4th graders outshined their contemporaries in most other participating nations. But 8th graders and 12th graders did not fare nearly as well compared with their international counterparts. ("U.S. Seniors Near Bottom in World Test," March 4, 1998.)

This time around, researchers are going back to the same school districts to find out whether those high-scoring 4th graders of 1995 can retain their edge in 8th grade.

A total of 40 nations--some of which took part in the last round of exams and some new ones--signed up to take part in the 1999 tests.

Transition Period

But 2000 also marks the last year of data collection for a project that has provided education researchers with a treasure-trove of valuable data throughout the 1990s. The National Education Longitudinal Study, which has been tracking a national sample of students who entered 8th grade in 1988, will visit those students for the last time two years from now to find out how they are faring eight years out of high school.

The changes stem in part from a rejiggering process Mr. Forgione began three years ago to bring on new databases and introduce some regularity to existing ones.

"People don't want to do this stuff because of casual interest," said Mr. Forgione, who, as a former state superintendent in Delaware, remembers being frustrated by the irregular testing cycles of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally mandated tests given to national samples of students in grades 4, 8, and 12. "People want to see 'how do I do over time,' and the only way to do that is to provide trend data."

Congress has so far smiled upon his efforts, boosting the agency's budget from $76 million in 1996 to $104 million for fiscal 1999. To fit all his programs in, however, the commissioner has had to expand the intervals between data collections for some studies, piggyback others, and enlist other federal agencies to share in the planning, the data-gathering, and the cost.

'A Wonderful Opportunity'

The study of newborns, for example, is a multi-agency effort involving the Department of Agriculture, the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other offices in the education department.

For that study, investigators two years from now will use birth certificates to gather the names of 1,000 babies born each month throughout the year. When the infants are 9 months old, assessors will visit their homes, interview their parents, observe parents and children at play, and evaluate the infants' growth and development.

Research assistants will continue to visit the children every 12 to 18 months until they reach age 6 and to interview their caregivers as well.

Jerry West, the project officer for the study, says the agency is also exploring the possibility of finding and interviewing non-resident fathers to get an unprecedented picture of the role they play in their children's development.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to actually track the development of children over time," said Barbara A. Wasik, a researcher from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a member of an independent panel advising the study. "We're going to be able to learn how children develop over their first year of life, what the construction of their family is like, what day care situations they're in, and we'll have equally good information about their cognitive development."

Problems Start Early

As part of the kindergarten study, Westat Inc., a Rockville, Md.-based research company, recruited and trained recent college graduates, retired teachers, and other college-educated workers to do one-on-one assessments of all 21,000 kindergartners in the study.

The tests typically last around 45 minutes and cover a wide range of academic, social, and physical aspects of children's development. Children are weighed and measured and asked to identify letters of the alphabet, to name colors, and to hop, among other tasks.

The first results from the study are not expected until 2000.

Mr. Forgione said both early-childhood studies, which have been a decade in the making, are important because research suggests that large learning gaps already exist among children when they come to school and that those gaps often persist through high school.

"If you look at differences in black and white students' performance in 12th grade," he said, "half of that gap would be attributable to what kids come to school with."

Vol. 18, Issue 16, Pages 1,27

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