Early Childhood

New Race to Top Spurs Concerns About Testing Preschoolers

By Maureen Kelleher — August 18, 2011 6 min read
Teacher Kelly Schultz takes a note on De'Myas Johnson, 2 months, for screening assessments at Clayton Early Learning in Denver, Colorado. Teachers take photographs and notes on children to assess learning, readiness, and cognitive development. The Race to the Top comes with additional grant money that requires that states develop assessments for young children.

The proposed assessment requirements for the new Race to the Top early-learning competition are sparking concerns from some preschool advocates, who fear the provisions could lead to high-stakes testing of young children and unfair accountability measures imposed on educators.

At the same time, other observers suggest the federal competition could generate national models for early assessment.

At least 36 states are expected to compete later this year for a slice of $500 million in grants under the Early Learning Challenge, which aims to support states as they ramp up both the quality of and access to early-childhood programs.

The initiative comes amid debate about how best to evaluate young children’s school readiness, and as some states have been exploring new approaches.

Nearly 350 organizations and individuals weighed in last month on the draft guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education for the grants, with many suggesting states should be explicitly prohibited from using the required assessments for high-stakes purposes.

The Education Department waived its usual rulemaking process for the guidelines and instead invited comments July 1-11 via a moderated blog.

“We support using assessments as long as they are targeted to improve instruction and classroom environments,” said Ben Allen, the public-policy and research director for the Washington-based National Head Start Association which was among the groups submitting comments. “We don’t want assessments to be used to reward or sanction individual children or teachers. A single assessment should not be used as the sole method to evaluate a program.”

Officials at the Education Department say they agree that the kinds of assessments they want to see should not be used to make decisions about whether to defer a child’s entry into 1st grade or to fire a kindergarten teacher.

“We think about it as an ongoing process of collecting information around young children’s learning and program improvements,” said Jacqueline Jones, a senior adviser on early learning to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “We know there aren’t real accountability measures here, and I think that’s appropriate. But we want teachers to understand where kids are and how to use that information to inform instruction.”

‘Absolute Priorities’

The Early Learning Challenge program seeks to encourage states to align the many players involved in early-childhood education, improve standards and assessment, and advance the quality of early-childhood educators. The state grants, expected to range in size from $50 million to $100 million, will be awarded by year’s end. At press time, the application deadline had not yet been announced.

In May, the Obama administration announced that a new wave of $700 million in Race to the Top aid would be divided into two pots: $500 million for the Early Learning Challenge and $200 million for the nine states that narrowly missed out on last year’s K-12 competition. The additional Race to the Top money was provided under a fiscal 2011 budget deal finalized earlier this year, not as part of the 2009 stimulus law. (“New Race to Top Money Eyed Warily by Some,” June 1, 2011.)

According to the draft guidelines, the Early Learning Challenge’s two “absolute priorities”—items states must address in their applications—are a kindergarten-entry assessment to be administered to all kindergartners by the start of the 2014-15 school year and the development of a Quality Rating and Improvement System tied to child-care licensing that provides training and incentives to encourage providers to participate.

Teacher Ivory Monique Williams, left, shows a tablet used for photos and notes to DeShawn Davis, 4, center, at Clayton Early Learning in Denver.

Experts say the new early-learning competition comes in the wake of a significant shift in the federal approach to early assessment, since the National Reporting System—an assessment for 4- and 5-year-olds in Head Start widely criticized as developmentally inappropriate—was scuttled with the 2007 reauthorization of the federal program.

Today, Head Start, along with some states, such as Colorado and Maryland, use benchmarked observational assessments to gauge children’s development and improve program quality.

“You don’t see observational assessment in K-12,” Mr. Allen of the Head Start association said.

At the beginning of each school year, Maryland’s kindergarten teachers measure children’s school readiness by compiling portfolios of pupils’ work and recording their classroom behaviors. Teachers, families, and early-childhood programs receive the results.

The assessment carries no formal accountability consequences for children or programs, but the data have become a key tool for quality improvement, budgeting, and policy, said Rolf Grafwallner, Maryland’s deputy state superintendent for early-childhood development.

Colorado’s Results Matter data system asks preschool teachers to quantify their observations of children’s development using rubrics. Finding high-quality observational assessments is not easy, notes Nan Verdegna, the director of Results Matter.

“Very few meet our requirements and have been updated to reflect current research and updated state standards,” she said. Colorado recently dropped two tools from its limited menu of options, she added, because of problems with their design and other issues.

Even a high-quality measure should not be the sole yardstick used to assess children and programs, said W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J.

“Some kind of triangulation where you use classroom observation, standardized assessments of kids, and some other source—performance assessment, administrator judgment, something else—that’s probably the best solution,” he said.

In comments on the federal guidelines for the Early Learning Challenge, Mr. Barnett’s institute said assessments should not be used to make high-stakes decisions for children or programs.

It also said that existing state systems for rating and improving the quality of early-childhood offerings may not offer struggling programs enough support to raise quality.

“I’m always concerned states will develop inappropriate assessments, even without the Early Learning Challenge,” Mr. Barnett said. “They don’t need encouragement.”

Saving Time for Play

Even if the new Race to the Top competition spurs more high-quality assessment tools, said Sharon Lynn Kagan, a co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, “the second trick is going to be using them in a way that does not violate a commitment to play and a focus on exploratory learning for children.”

Despite such concerns, many early-childhood advocates say a vanguard of state winners could spur improvement across the country, especially if the assessments they develop are shared.

“It would be terrific to use these select Early Learning Challenge states as proofs of concept and use the tools to help other states develop systems, not have the next 30 states reinvent the wheel,” said Robert C. Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.

Nascent interest in K-2 assessment combined with the Early Learning Challenge may lead the two state consortia working on assessments pegged to new common standards in English/language arts and mathematics to take a coordinated P-3 approach to early-learning standards and assessment, some officials suggest.

“The cooperation between the states we’ve seen with the common-core standards and the two assessment consortia has been impressive,” said Chris Barron, a spokesman for the Washington state education department. His state is leading the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium of 28 states.

“If the economic times allow for it,” Mr. Barron said, “there’s a good chance that states could combine resources for an early-education assessment as well.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Initiative Sparks Assessment Fears

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