Critics Assert Head Start Test Is Ineffective and Culturally Biased
A test developed under a $2-million federal contract to measure the cognitive development of children in Head Start programs and help their teachers plan activities is of little use, a number of educators are saying.
The voluntary paper-and-pencil test, which Head Start programs may receive for $34 a copy from its developer, the University of Arizona, is too costly, takes too long to administer, is too complex for 3- and 4-year-olds, and does not provide useful child-development information, those familiar with it argue. Some educators also argue that it is culturally biased.
The controversy, which has been simmering since the test was first made available to Head Start programs last year, boiled up at the Washington meeting last week of the National Black Child Development Institute, where the test's developer and a leading opponent debated its merits.
The Head Start Measures Battery, as the test is known, was taken by 16,000 children last year and will be taken by an estimated 24,000 this year. Head Start, the federal program for disadvantaged preschoolers, enrolls some 449,000 participants.
The test is designed to identify for teachers "where a child is in a developmental sequence or path" so they can tailor their educational programs to the child's needs, according to John R. Bergan, the University of Arizona professor of education who developed the battery.
Available in both English and Spanish, it tests preschoolers' skills in language, mathematics, nature and science, perception, reading, and social development. The test is given first in the fall and later in the spring to determine their progress.
For the $34 cost per test, the university provides the test materials and a training program to teach Head Start officials how to administer the test, and scores the tests after they are taken. Head Start officials who want to use the instrument generally seek supplemental federal funds or grants from foundations to do so, said Mr. Bergan.
The controversy over the testing mechanism comes on the heels of a report released last month that found that children enrolled in Head Start show significant immediate gains in cognitive and socio-emotional test scores and in health status, but that those benefits diminish over time. (See Education Week, Sept. 11, 1985.)
The University of Arizona was awarded the contract to develop and test a Head Start battery in 1981, after members of the Head Start community determined that existing measures were inadequate.
Based on a review of existing literature and "extensive content-validity studies relating to the appropriateness of the measures for children from different experiential backgrounds," Mr. Bergan and other researchers came up with a version of the test, which was pilot-tested and revised over a period of three years.
The battery was made available to local programs last fall; an estimated 220 have used the test, Mr. Bergan said in an interview last week.
Both Mr. Bergan and the Head Start Bureau of the Administration for Children, Youth, and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stress that the test is strictly voluntary and say the program has proved successful.
For example, of 175 Head Start ed-ucational coordinators who participated in the most recent training session to learn how to use the test, 172 reported "extremely favorable" reactions, according to Allen Smith, special assistant for research in the Head Start Bureau.
Furthermore, Mr. Bergan noted, when local program officials have concerns over the test, they are encouraged, through ongoing "public-service agreements" between the university and the programs, to ask that changes be made.
But Asa G. Hilliard 3rd, professor of urban education at Georgia State University and a member of the advisory panel that first considered the development of a Head Start battery, said in an interview last week that those programs that are using the test are doing so only because they have been given the extra funds.
He also pointed to evidence of "overwhelming resistance" to the test, both at the local program level and among early-childhood-education experts.
In Chicago, for example, a survey of 12 area Head Start programs that used the test last year found agreement that "the test was not based on the best information that we have about how young children learn,'' according to Dorothy Nagelbach, assistant director of the Chicago program and the survey coordinator.
Among the concerns shared by program officials, she said, were that the test was too difficult, contained items inappropriate for 3- and 4-year-old children, and appeared to contradict the intent of the educational goals outlined in Head Start's performance standards.
In addition, she said, the social-development part of the test was "value-ridden and biased" and was "inappropriate for multi-cultural populations."
The Chicago-area respondents also pointed to the test's length and cost as detriments. In addition, she said, there was no guarantee that the battery would be administered by someone knowledgeable about child development.
Ms. Nagelbach said she understood that the test had been revised since the respondents, some of whom wrote to the Head Start Bureau or the University of Arizona, listed their complaints. But she said she had decided not to participate in the testing this year because she was unable to see a copy of the test before deciding whether to use it
Mr. Hilliard agreed with many of those criticisms, but said his major concern was the test's general ineffectiveness.
"It claims to be useful for the design of effective instruction in Head Start and it isn't," he said. "The idea of learning something about either cognition or socialization from the use of the exam that would help a teacher do a better job is totally8false. It's nothing more than an achievement test."
"We see this as meaningless, useless, intrusive, and not helpful at all."
Further, he noted, the battery is "basically at philosophical odds with the kinds of positions taken by the advisory panel," which favored systematic and naturalistic observation and a sensitivity to what children already know.
David Weikart, director of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, pointed to the overall difficulty of devising an appropriate assessment for preschool children.
"The dangers of having an outcome instrument are that teachers will see it as the definition of what ... should be learned by children and therefore attempt to teach that limited sphere," he said.
Instead, he suggested, researchers should attempt to develop a way to measure children's creativity, responsibility, and other characteristics.
Vol. 05, Issue 09