Early Childhood

Debate Continues Over Head Start Assessment

By Linda Jacobson — March 10, 2004 4 min read
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As the federal government prepares to begin its second round of testing 4- and 5-year-olds in the Head Start program for poor children next month, some early- childhood educators and assessment experts are still hoping to stop the test or to persuade the Bush administration to make significant changes in its design.

“It is our view that we have to get this right,” Mark Ginsberg, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, said during a recent conference call with reporters. The test, he added, should be “independently reviewed” and revised.

Called the National Reporting System, the test—which focuses on vocabulary, letter recognition, and early-mathematics skills—was administered to more than 430,000 children across the country last fall. It was the largest assessment of preschoolers ever conducted—in spite of criticism from early-childhood advocacy groups as well as some members of a “technical work group” that was asked to provide advice on the new test.

‘Blip of Amnesia’

During the Feb. 26 conference call, Linda Espinosa, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a member of the work group, said she believed that officials in the federal Administration for Children and Families, which oversees Head Start, might have been suffering from “some blip of amnesia,” because many assessment experts say standardized testing for accountability purposes shouldn’t begin before the 3rd grade.

Critics of the test say that assessments in preschool can be unreliable because young children’s development can fluctuate from day to day, and that the results of the National Reporting System should not be used to make decisions about whether programs are effective.

The purpose of the test should not be “for the federal government to sweep through our communities to decide what programs to shut down,” said Larry Schweinhart, the president of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., and a participant in the conference call. “The climate in which this test is going forward is the climate created by the No Child Left Behind Act.”

The federal law requires annual testing in reading and mathematics of all children in grades 3 through 8, as well as once during their high school careers.

But Nicholas Zill, the project director at Westat, the Rockville, Md.-based research company that designed and implemented the test, said the results of the fall test so far have been reliable and valid.

Consistent with past assessments of Head Start pupils and other 4-year-olds from low- income families, the National Reporting System shows that children entering the program have academic skills below the national average.

For example, most children entering Head Start have the vocabulary skills of a 3-year-old instead of a typical 4- or 5-year-old in the United States, and most can count between six and 10 objects. Results, however, show wide variation among children. About 9 percent know almost all the letters of the alphabet, while about 30 percent could not identify any of them.

Gaps Remain

Once the spring test is given, the Head Start Bureau will be able to target better technical assistance to programs that need it, said Wade F. Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the federal preschool program.

The purpose is not to penalize programs in which children aren’t progressing, added Mr. Horn, who joined Mr. Zill in responding to reporters’ questions in a separate teleconference on the same day as the NAEYC press conference.

Comparing this year’s test to the first pancake in a pan that is used to gauge the heat but not served to anyone, Mr. Horn said he realizes that the National Reporting System is an incomplete instrument at this point, partly because it doesn’t examine children’s social and emotional development.

“The system we have this year is not going to be the system we have in place five years from now,” he said. “We know there are gaps.”

Comments and concerns from the technical work group have been considered, and some of the group’s suggestions have already been implemented, according to Mr. Horn.

“We have taken their advice, but it’s disheartening that we get this kind of unfair criticism,” Mr. Zill added.

Ms. Espinosa, though, questioned whether any of the work group’s recommendations had been acted on.

While Mr. Horn said he didn’t understand why some members of the work group were so opposed to the test, Mr. Zill suggested that some have a financial interest in other types of early-childhood-assessment programs.

For example, Samuel J. Meisels, the president of the Erickson Institute in Chicago, a graduate center in child development, and probably the most outspoken critic of the Head Start test, designed the Work Sampling System, in which teachers observe children and use checklists to record progress over time.

In response last week, Mr. Meisels said he doesn’t receive royalties from the Work Sampling System and has never designed anything comparable to the National Reporting System.

“Attacking anybody,” he said, “has nothing to do with the argument that we’re bringing to bear on the inadequacies of the test.”

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