Three times last year, teachers at the Chinese American Service League had to administer two very similar student assessments in its blended preschool program, sending the results either to the Chicago Public Schools or the Chicago Department of Human Services.

And yet, no one can tell the League—or any early childhood program in Chicago—how well it is doing.

“It’s such a waste of time from a teacher’s perspective,” says Teri Talan of the Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National-Louis University. “You’re using information just to be able to report to an agency. You’re wasting the teacher’s time with the child.”

The Chicago Public Schools recently decided to exempt such centers as the Service League’s from one set of tests. However, the federal government is introducing another set, with the potential for still more on the horizon.

Like 130 other community-based preschool programs in Chicago, the Service League gets money from both the federal Head Start program and from Illinois’ pre-kindergarten program—the latter is funneled through the Chicago Public Schools. Thus, it must follow two sets of rules.

Last year, that meant the Service League had to administer two assessments three times a year: the Child Assessment Profile (CAP) to satisfy the state and the Work Sampling assessment to satisfy the federal government. Conducted through teacher observation and one-on-one with each child, each assessment can take anywhere from a day to a week per child, not counting the time needed to enter the results online. The CAP test alone measures 59 different academic and social skills, which are aligned with Illinois’ early learning standards. The Head Start assessment is even more involved.

“There’s a lot of the same benchmarking in Head Start as in state pre-k,” says Matilde Romero, a teacher in the preschool program at Erie House in West Town. “We just have to do more recording, more sampling and portfolios.”

All this testing can derail teaching. One program evaluator says that at one Head Start center, she saw 19 children and an aide “wandering around without anything to do” while the lead teacher tested one child. “That’s how assessment runs amok,” says, Talan.

This fall, Head Start started requiring an additional assessment that focuses mostly on academic questions such as colors, numbers and letters. It must be given at the beginning and the end of the school year.

“Somebody needs to give up their rights to all this testing,” says Paula Cottone, a Head Start assessment expert for CPS, who worries about excessive testing and the increasing focus on academics.

For a time, the CAP—a homegrown assessment developed by Chicago teachers and administrators—was considered sufficiently aligned with both the state’s early learning standards and Head Start’s prescribed outcomes to be used for both programs.

But then two years ago, federal officials told Head Start programs that they had to administer one of three commercially developed tests used throughout the country—Work Sampling, Creative Curriculum, or High-Scope—so that results could be validated broadly and programs could be more easily compared. After a year and a half of administering both assessments, with the addition of a third this fall, CPS decided to exempt state pre-kindergarten programs that are blended with Head Start programs from the CAP assessment.

“I changed the policy,” says CPS’s Lucinda Lee Katz, chief officer for early childhood education. “I don’t want any of our programs assessing kids with two or three different tests.”

This decision, approved in December, will ease the assessment burden on blended sites without endangering over $30 million in federal Head Start funding that CPS receives each year.

However, there is a downside. CPS will no longer have completely comparable test data for all its preschool centers.

And many centers haven’t heard the news. In late January, Pam Costakis, director of Erie House’s state pre-k program, says she hasn’t heard that they are off the hook.

Left in the dark

Experts agree that the data gathered from these assessments can be very useful for individual programs and overall accountability purposes.

“If you think that you’re teaching your students to love books and you find out that no one picks up a book in your classroom, then you need to know that,” says Katz.

But it usually doesn’t work that way. City and CPS officials who collect the data and pass them along to the state or the federal government don’t report them back to the centers, say staff at many centers.

And many centers often don’t have the time or staff members who know how to pull individual results together and analyze them. That’s especially true in community-based centers, says National-Louis’s Talan.

CPS aggregates CAP data but only for such citywide purposes as planning professional development. And even then, the analysis is not timely. Last year’s data are still being analyzed, according to Joan Berger, a preschool assessment expert for CPS. Thus far, the only conclusion she can report is that most children in the city’s state pre-k programs performed at or above average on the CAP last year.

Reporting and using the test data to inform teaching and provide better accountability is “something we need to work on,” says CPS’s Katz. “We are in transition when it comes to assessment.”

In the meantime, centers are left in the dark. Worried that its children are not learning enough English, the Service League is working with an independent researcher to get a better handle on how its children do in school after leaving. Sharon Wilcher, the principal of nearby Ward Elementary, says the dozen or so children she gets from the League’s center each year do as well as the children who attend preschool at Ward.

And just as CPS is reducing the testing burden for some preschool programs, it is increasing it for the primary grades. Last fall, it administered a literacy assessment, the Illinois Snapshot of Early Literacy (ISEL), to kindergartners at about 150 schools. Next year, it plans to assess all of them, which will be the first time such citywide testing is administered below 3rd grade.

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