As states move to expand public preschool programs—and seek to measure their effectiveness—they soon will have new guidance on how to design assessment and accountability systems appropriate for young children.
Members of a 15-member task force, convened two years ago by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts, recently previewed recommendations due for release in a report next month on various assessment choices available and what the states need to implement them.
“Our goal was to have this document become a manifesto to stave off the misuse of accountability data and to promote the effective use of information to improve programs,” said Sharon L. Kagan, a professor of early-childhood and family policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the chairwoman of the task force.
Highlights from the report were outlined in a Sept. 12 national conference call organized by Pre- K Now, a Washington-based advocacy group.
But Ms. Kagan noted that researchers and professionals in the field came to no agreement on whether states should both evaluate programs and measure whether individual children are making progress.
Concerns over whether programs would lose funding, teachers would “teach to the test,” or children would be labeled as low achievers even before entering kindergarten all contributed to the lack of unity on the topic, Ms. Kagan said.
“The state of child assessment for preschoolers is still pretty primitive,” said Lindy Buch, a member of the task force and the director of the office of early-childhood education and family services for the Michigan Department of Education. Her state’s program serves about 21,000 4-year-olds.
“If you only hold programs accountable for [child performance], then programs will learn how to cherry-pick which kids they want,” Ms. Buch said. “Who are they going to refuse to serve?”
Others, however, said that some children may struggle even in programs that earn high marks for quality. If states get the message they should use data to improve instruction rather than grade individual children, the task force could help overcome negative opinions about testing in the preschool field, added Thomas W. Schultz, the director of the accountability project.
No Unified System
Education experts have long said that standardized tests are an unreliable source of information on young children because early childhood is a time of such rapid development, marked by unpredictable behavior.
Still, states have tried to respond to policymakers’ demands to know whether the tax money they are spending on preschool is actually improving children’s skills. (“States Move Toward Closer Scrutiny of Preschools,” Sept. 12, 2007.)
Eugene Garcia, the vice chairman of the task force and the vice president for university-school partnerships at Arizona State University, in Tempe, said one of the challenges states face is that multiple assessment and accountability initiatives already are in place.
Early-education experts say states should take certain steps as they come up with assessment and accountability systems for preschool programs.
Provide adequate funding for programs, staff, high-quality assessments, and program improvements.
Build an overall system for all early-education programs that are aligned from pre-K through 3rd grade.
Create a robust, positive, and rigorous culture for earlychildhood accountability efforts.
Support teachers and managers in using assessments to enhance children’s learning.
SOURCE: National Early Childhood Accountability Task Force
“We do not have a unified early-childhood-education system,” he said.
The task force is recommending that states design a system that can be used across the broad spectrum of early-childhood programs, including school-based, nonprofit, child-care, and faithbased providers.
But the panel said that a state first needs to have early-learning standards that specify what children should be expected to learn during the preschool years. There also should be standards governing programs, it said.
States should have a method for rating programs and rewarding them for improvement, according to the panel.
In Colorado, for example, the Qualistar Early Learning rating scale awards more points to programs that go above minimum requirements in areas such as staff-child ratios, teacher training, and learning materials.
In addition, states should have a professional-development system for teachers and a process for managing and reporting the data that are collected, Ms. Kagan said.
Different Starting Points
Mr. Schultz said some states might be more interested in collecting information on the quality of programs, while others might want to know how children are progressing across the range of providers offering services.
“Whether a state is funding school districts, nonprofit[s], et cetera,” he said, “there is an interest in making sure each of those agencies is making progress. This kind of information can be useful as states begin to provide more tailored technical assistance.”
Marsha Moore, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning and a task force member, said the group tried to remain sensitive to the fact that every state is at a different phase in delivering early-childhood services and evaluating them.
Instead of a rating system, Georgia, for example, has relied on a large monitoring system to determine whether programs are meeting standards, as well as independent research to tell how well children attending the state’s lottery-financed pre-K program are progressing.
The state also is beginning to implement the Work Sampling System assessment, which collects achievement and other child-development data on a sample of pupils instead of everyone.
Ms. Moore added that even though lawmakers want to know how well programs and children are performing, they don’t always approve funding for the types of activities the task force is recommending.
“We know that early education is very expensive,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 26, 2007 edition of Education Week