South Loop Elementary Credit: photo by John Booz

Testing young children is a dicey proposition. On one hand, educators and policy-makers agree that finding out what preschoolers know and building on those skills is important. It is also essential, they say, to determine whether preschool programs are delivering the goods and sufficiently preparing youngsters for grade school.

Yet, early childhood experts warn that much is unknown about how best to teach reading and early math to 3- and 4-year-olds, and that too much emphasis on these academic skills could be detrimental.

“We know that young children can learn a lot if you give them opportunities, but we have to be very careful that we don’t push children to make them unhappy about learning,” says Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford University School of Education.

“We need accountability, we need rich data, but how do we do this in a cost-efficient way that informs teachers about practices, centers about programs and policy-makers about [funding] allocations?” asks Paula Bloom, director of the Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National-Louis University.

Proving the point is a contentious debate over the value and validity of nationwide Head Start testing. Even before the National Reporting System (NRS) was first administered two years ago, those charged with creating the test disagreed about what should be included. Since then, the test has drawn fire from educators, researchers and politicians alike, and was criticized in a Congressional study for not being up to the task of providing data that could help improve instruction. (See related story)

Just last month, U.S. House representatives tacked on an amendment to suspend the NRS to a bill to reauthorize Head Start.

Here, beginning this year, Chicago Public Schools will be taking stock of its own preschool programs. The district oversees some 600 preschool classrooms—342 state pre-K, 234 Head Start and 24 tuition-based. (Through community partnerships, the district funds and helps run another 400 classrooms based in child care centers in the city.)

Consultants have been hired to figure out the best way to evaluate district preschool programs, and, for the first time this year, CPS will conduct two formal observations in every preschool class to gauge program quality. The information will be used to help teachers develop plans to improve their classrooms.

The process may eventually lead to yet another assessment, one that would measure what preschool children are learning over time, says Chief Early Childhood Education Officer Barbara Bowman. “We’ll look at the outcomes and what children have learned over the year,” she says. “Eventually, we might want to test a sample of children.”

Many blame the federal No Child Left Behind law for escalating the pressure to test and assess. Under the law, formal accountability begins in 3rd grade, when districts are required to begin testing students and report detailed results. To ensure every child is literate and armed with basic academic skills by the time they reach 3rd grade, schools have already turned up the heat in primary grades and kindergarten. Now the fire has reached preschool.

“There is a lot of pressure in preschool because of No Child Left Behind,” says Stipek, who is also a researcher in early childhood development and education. “It is being pushed down. Kindergarten is more academic because of [the law]. It looks like 1st grade. Kindergarten teachers are worried that kids aren’t coming to school with certain skills, which is not something they worried about before.”

Federal government steps in

The clarion call for Head Start testing came from the top. In a speech announcing the early childhood initiative Good Start, Grow Smart in 2002, President George W. Bush directed Head Start officials to come up with an accountability system to make sure every program site would assess children’s skills and progress.

The president’s words gave birth, a year later, to the National Reporting System (NRS), a twice-a-year assessment for Head Start children who are eligible for kindergarten. The oral exam was developed to measure young children’s knowledge and skills in literacy, spoken language and math.

Problems with the test arose immediately. Some were easily addressed: providing more detailed guidance to help those giving the test deal with fidgety children and unexpected situations; testing Spanish-speaking children in their native language before giving them the test in English; and making it easier to electronically track which children were tested and the results.

But other flaws—the most serious ones, say early childhood experts—remain. Is the test accurate? Are the questions appropriate for young children? Can NRS produce data that can measure program quality?

According to Samuel Meisels, president of the renowned Erikson Institute, the answer to all of these questions is no. “This test is not the way to go,” says Meisels, who along with a team of other experts, provided advice on test design.

High stakes testing causes many problems, he adds, and it’s difficult to pinpoint what young children actually know. “One day, a child knows something, but the next day they don’t. Little kids are different in the way they respond to testing than kids in 3rd through 8th grades.”

Recently, some Democrats in Washington, D.C., have grown more uncomfortable with the NRS. Earlier this year, Sens. Edward Kennedy and Christopher Dodd asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into the validity of the test. Then, in September, Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin sponsored an amendment to put an immediate halt to the NRS while the National Academy of Sciences conducts a full review of the test and provides guidance on appropriate standards and ways to assess young children.

(In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences published a report, “Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers,” that detailed best practices for testing.)

In Chicago, several Head Start directors comment privately that the NRS results they receive are not useful. However, few will say so publicly. “We are afraid that the test could be used against us,” says one Head Start administrator. “Data could be used by funders who evaluate our programs.”

Meanwhile, officials at both entities that oversee all of Chicago’s Head Start programs—the Chicago Department of Children and Youth Services and Ounce of Prevention Fund—say they will consider NRS results along with those from other assessments conducted at their sites to measure program quality and children’s progress.

“The NRS will be a supporting document for us,” says Claire Dunham of Ounce of Prevention Fund, which has hired a researcher to assess its Head Start children and its teacher support strategies.

Likewise, the city plans to use NRS data to help plan teacher training and boost literacy instruction. A team of education experts will be assigned to work with each Head Start agency. “I’d like to see more vocabulary, more use of nouns and descriptors,” says Commissioner Mary Ellen Caron. “We want parents and teachers to use these kinds of words with children.”

Weighing preschool quality

Currently, CPS tests children in all its preschool programs. Head Start kids take a commercially developed test called Creative Curriculum three times a year; those in state pre-K are given a homegrown assessment developed by Chicago educators called CAP (Child Assessment Profile) twice a year. Children in the tuition-based program take the Early Screening Inventory just once, six to eight weeks after they enter the program.

(Preschool programs based in outside centers that receive some funding from the district may choose among three commercial tests: Creative Curriculum, High Scopes or Work Sampling, which was developed by Meisels of the Erikson Institute.)

While these tests help teachers determine what children know, they do not provide much insight on classroom instruction and what needs to be done to improve it. So for the first time this year, every CPS preschool classroom will undergo two formal observations that will follow protocols established by two nationally recognized assessment tools.

One of them is the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, which was developed by researchers from the University of North Carolina’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. The other is called Early Language Literary Classroom Observation, which was developed by the Education Development Center, a Boston-based school improvement group. Both observations examine literary and language practices and the classroom environment.

Bonnie Roelle, who heads the district’s state pre-K programs, explains that the visits should not be viewed negatively. “Kids are not tested and teachers will not be evaluated,” she says. The district will be looking to determine whether classrooms have enough books, whether those books are in children’s home language, and whether children are being read to in large and small groups, Roelle adds.

If classrooms are found lacking, a coach will work with the teacher to devise an improvement plan, she notes.

CPS Early Childhood Officer Bowman, who is co-founder and former president of Erikson Institute, has hired a retired district researcher to align the results of both preschool assessments. “About two-thirds of our programs use CAP and a third use Creative Curriculum,” Bowman explains. “They are not the same instrument. We want to know how to put [both tests] in a single measure.”

She’s also hired Meisels to create a road map for evaluating the district’s early childhood programs. Bowman says the evaluation protocols will lay out areas that need to be examined, how best to examine them, and when to do it. A working version is expected to be ready by January.

The goal is to come up with a master plan for yearly program evaluation, then figure out how much it will cost, Bowman says. “We’ll have to see how much of it we can afford and how much we can implement.”

To contact Debra Williams, call (312) 673-3873 or e-mail

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