Teachers at Orlando Day Nursery in Florida have always evaluated how well their 4-year-old prekindergartners—most of them poor and African-American—could recognize letters, isolate sounds in words, understand stories read to them, and show other hallmarks of early literacy.
Just as important, though, have been the teachers’ formal observations of social and emotional development: Could children follow instructions, for example, and make friends and cooperate in a group?
But under a new standardized assessment required by the state to measure how the nearly 184,000 4-year-olds in Florida’s voluntary prekindergarten program are doing in early literacy, numeracy, and language development, some early-education providers say those key social skills will be discounted as evidence of how well they are preparing pupils for kindergarten.
Voicing concerns that resonate around the country, early-childhood advocates fear that the state’s pre-K providers—under pressure to demonstrate children’s progress on academic indicators—will focus only on developing those skills.
“With the assessments we were using before, you could really get to know the strengths of each child and clearly identify what you needed to work on to help them develop,” said Mata Dennis, the director of Orlando Day Nursery, which serves the children of low-income families in west Orlando, including 57 students in the voluntary prekindergarten program.
“The new assessment does not give us the same quality of knowledge about every child,” she said.
The issues in Florida reflect an ongoing national debate over how best to evaluate the school-readiness skills of young children, especially as a growing number of states provide publicly funded preschool programs for low-income families and want to ensure that the money is spent well.
Roughly half the states now use some form of a kindergarten-entry or -readiness assessment, but there are huge variations in which skills and knowledge are measured and how states use the results to make policy and instructional decisions, said Kyle Snow, the director of the Center for Applied Research at the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children.
And while momentum around using assessments to measure and improve quality has picked up even more since the U.S. Department of Education announced its Race to the Top Early-Learning Challenge grants for states last year, establishing broad agreement among early-childhood educators and K-12 practitioners on what constitutes school readiness and measuring that accurately is a work in progress everywhere, Mr. Snow said.
If states are going to require assessments, Mr. Snow said, it’s imperative to proceed with care in deciding when, how, and why they are doing so, and to make sure all facets of a child’s development and learning are evaluated.
“This is profound,” he said. “To really understand where a child is, you have to look across multiple areas of development.”
Samuel Meisels, the president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute and a national authority on assessing young children, said that while states justifiably want to know if their pre-K investments are paying off, “readiness for school is not an absolute,” and that assessments need to be able to detect nuances and different ways children display readiness.
“We’re not talking about whether someone is ready to drive a car,” he said. “It’s about readiness for the ability to learn in a certain context and situation, which is going to look different for different kids in different classrooms, different schools, and different communities.”
Dispute in Florida
Florida’s voluntary prekindergarten program—known popularly as VPK—started seven years ago, and has grown into the nation’s second-largest public prekindergarten program, after Texas.
In 2012-13, the state will spend $413 million to provide prekindergarten services through a network of private preschools and child-care centers, as well as some public schools. The estimated enrollment of nearly 184,000 children represents roughly 84 percent of all of Florida’s 4-year-olds. Any child who turns 4 by Sept. 1 is eligible to participate; there is no family-income requirement.
The new assessment—developed by researchers at Florida State University in Tallahassee—was mandated by a state law that specified that a child’s knowledge and skills in early literacy, math, and language be measured and used to judge how well a provider was performing, said Mary Jane Tappen, the state education agency’s deputy chancellor for curriculum, instruction, and student services.
The assessment—which will be given at the beginning of the school year and again at the end of the school year—is also designed to give providers clear guidance on how to improve, she said.
“The assessment is based exactly on the Florida standards for 4-year-olds and is geared toward those early-literacy and -numeracy skills that we know are critical and predictive of how well a child is going to do in school,” Ms. Tappen said.
Currently, pre-K providers are evaluated on how well their former pupils perform on a two-part kindergarten-readiness test that many educators say does not accurately discern what role a pre-K program played in children’s preparation versus the role of parents.
Within three years, the test will determine whether prekindergarten providers must take prescribed steps to improve their services or risk losing their funding, Ms. Tappen said.
But to the dismay of many in Florida’s early-childhood community, the new test does not evaluate children’s social and emotional or physical development, even though those areas are in the state’s standards for early-childhood programs.
“This does not assess all of the standards we have here in Florida, and it does not assess the exact standards that everything in the research literature is telling us are the most important ones,” said Kathleen Reynolds, the chief executive officer of the Early Learning Coalition of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit organization that helps coordinate state-funded school-readiness programs in four counties, including voluntary prekindergarten.
“It’s like saying your height will predict your reading ability,” she said.
The same objections were raised earlier this year by members of the statewide advisory council on early-childhood issues, which urged Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, to halt the new assessments.
But Gerard Robinson, then the state schools chief, wrote in a letter to the panel in July that the test is a “sound assessment” that “provides Florida’s VPK teachers with information related to children that drives instruction in the classroom.”
Tests in English
The assessment is also administered only in English, despite the state’s large population of English-language learners. Ms. Tappen said that’s because the language of instruction in all voluntary prekindergarten programs is English, making it “inappropriate” to assess a child’s skills in his or her primary language.
Ms. Reynolds said not offering the test in other languages, particularly Spanish and Haitian Creole, will only make providers reluctant to serve English-learners.
“It’s penalizing the child, and it penalizes the providers who work with these kids,” she said.
Despite the strong disagreement over the VPK test, providers are moving ahead with administering the first “pre-assessment” of the new school year. Many will also conduct their own formal observations of children to evaluate how they are developing socially and emotionally, Ms. Reynolds said.
For the 20-minute-long state assessment, a child is pulled out of the regular flow of activities by a teacher and is asked to answer a series of questions, mostly by pointing to answers on a flip book, said Ms. Dennis of Orlando Day Nursery, whose school was a pilot site for the assessment last year.
The children have a few opportunities to answer out loud, she said, “but mostly they just point.”
Ms. Dennis said her teachers will still use the observation tool they have relied on for years to capture all dimensions of how children are developing.
“We are doing that because it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “But it does add another layer of responsibility for teachers on top of this new assessment.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2012 edition of Education Week as Educators Decry Academic Focus of Fla. Pre-K Test