Early Childhood

Head Start Renewal Advances Amid Debate Over Testing

By Linda Jacobson & Alyson Klein — February 20, 2007 6 min read
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The Senate education committee last week approved a bipartisan bill to reauthorize Head Start that would expand eligibility for the federal preschool program, tighten accountability for local grantees, and abolish the National Reporting System, a federal test given to all 4- and 5-year-old Head Start pupils.

The measure, which cleared the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee on a voice vote Feb. 14, advanced the same week a report commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services recommended that Head Start continue to administer the test—and possibly expand it to cover content areas beyond mathematics and literacy.

Read the report, “Secretary of Health and Human Services Advisory Committee on Head Start Accountability and Educational Performance Measures,” posted by the Administration for Children and Families.

The report, by a panel of reading and early-childhood-education experts, also says more work should be done on the testing system to address the needs of English-language learners and young children with disabilities. The Feb. 12 report was commissioned by the Administration for Children and Families, the agency within the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees Head Start, which serves 1 million children.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the education committee and a lead sponsor of the Head Start reauthorization bill, had not yet reviewed the HHS panel’s report when his committee took up the bill. He said he based his decision to terminate the NRS under his bill on a 2005 Government Accountability Office study that questioned the test’s efficacy.

‘Flawed’ Tests

“Four years ago, I insisted that instead of rushing forward with a national assessment for every 4- and 5-year-old in Head Start, this [Bush] administration should instead move more deliberately to develop and implement an assessment tool that would help guide and improve Head Start programs,” Sen. Kennedy said in a speech on the floor of the Senate Feb. 12. He called the tests “flawed and inconsistent with professional standards for testing and measurement.”

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking Republican on the committee did not address the NRS in his remarks, but he emphasized the bipartisan nature of the reauthorization bill, which would eliminate tests the administration favors keeping in place.

“I believe the legislation we are introducing today will improve the quality and effectiveness of the Head Start program for generations of children to come,” Sen. Enzi said in a speech on the floor Feb. 12. “It is my hope that our bipartisan efforts will continue to produce results.”

The Senate measure calls for the National Academy of Sciences to continue to study assessments for early-childhood programs. Any future tests for Head Start pupils would be based on the academy’s recommendations.

New Role for Parents

The Senate legislation would also boost authorization levels for Head Start, which has had flat funding for the past five years. It would authorize $7.3 billion for the program in fiscal 2008, a 6.1 increase over the fiscal 2006 appropriation level.

To step up accountability, the measure would require Head Start grantees that have received deficient ratings from HHS to compete for their grants with new applicants.

The bill would also bolster the state role in administering Head Start programs by creating a state advisory council on early care and education in every state. Those panels would be responsible for developing plans for data collection and teacher training, and for reviewing early-learning standards, among other activities. The bill would establish an incentive-grant program, authorized at $100 million, to help states carry out those efforts.

The measure would also expand eligibility for Head Start, which serves disadvantaged children, by allowing families who make up to 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $26,800 for a family of four, to participate. Currently, only families that make less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level—$20,600 for a family of four—are eligible.

“That’s a big deal,” said Joel Ryan, the senior legislative strategist for the National Head Start Association, an advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va. He said that in places such as Washington state, where the minimum wage is close to $8 an hour, some children don’t qualify for the program simply because their parents work full time.

But Mr. Ryan was less enthusiastic about language in the bill that would change the role of Head Start policy councils, local boards on which more than half the members are Head Start parents. Right now, Mr. Ryan said, such panels share equal responsibility with Head Start local governing boards over decisions on matters such as budget and personnel.

Under the legislation, the policy councils’ role would be more advisory, with the governing boards responsible for final decisions, Mr. Ryan said. He said that would diminish parents’ sense of ownership of Head Start programs.

“The policy council [language] is the number-one concern we have with the Senate bill,” Mr. Ryan said. “It’s the parents’ program.”

But Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said in a Feb. 13 speech on the floor of the Senate that the dual governing structure hasn’t worked well because “neither body had adequate decisionmaking authority.”

Advisory Panel’s Report

Meanwhile, the report from the Advisory Committee on Head Start Accountability and Educational Performance Measures is recommending a possible expansion of the National Reporting System to include more content areas. Currently, the various instruments used in the program cover early math skills and literacy, such as letter naming and vocabulary.

“The need for the NRS is clear. Without one universal system, it is impossible to reliably identify those programs that need more technical assistance and to tailor such assistance to each program’s specific needs,” the panel’s report says.

Regarding English-learners, the advisory committee notes that because many such pupils are not assessed in their native languages, there is a “gap in knowledge” about their school readiness or whether they might need early-intervention services. The report also recommends refining the Spanish vocabulary items to include responses that would represent different dialects in Spanish.

In addition, it says, benchmarks should be set so programs are aware of whether they are making appropriate progress.

Even before the test was first given in 2003, some early-childhood educators expressed concerns with the design of the test, saying they didn’t see a need to test every child, and arguing that some of the test questions were culturally biased.

Samuel Meisels, the president of the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development located in Chicago, and a vocal critic of the test, called the HHS panel’s findings “pretty blah.” But he added that he was encouraged that the report at least acknowledged some adjustments to the test are needed for it to be more useful.

“It’s unusual for HHS to admit that anything is problematic about the NRS,” he said in an e-mail.

Mr. Meisels, an expert on the assessment of young children, said, however, that he is not impressed with the advisory committee’s efforts to determine how valid the NRS is at predicting children’s test scores and their ratings from teachers at the end of kindergarten.

For the validity test, researchers started with a sample of 671 children. But they ended up with only 530 for correlation with kindergarten scores, and only 421 children for correlation with kindergarten-teacher ratings. Because of the attrition, Mr. Meisels said, “it is impossible to generalize these results to the entire Head Start population.”

“I remain unconvinced that after four years of twice-yearly administration of the [Head Start] NRS nearly 2 million 4-year-olds that this is very persuasive evidence of validity,” he wrote in a response to the analysis of the test.

The advisory committee, however, says in its report that all the “assessment components were found to be related to some aspect of tested achievement or teacher ratings or promotion decisions in kindergarten.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Head Start Renewal Advances Amid Debate Over Testing


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