Bush Plan to
Assess 4-Year-Olds' Progress Stirs Criticism
by Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, January 17, 2003
The Bush administration announced yesterday that it will soon
implement an unprecedented annual assessment of the 908,000
4-year-olds in Head Start programs nationwide, an effort that
officials said will determine how much the children are learning
in the government-funded preschool program for the poor.
Government officials, who unveiled the plan yesterday to
hundreds of Head Start directors at a conference here, said the
system would for the first time provide standardized data that
would allow them to evaluate local Head Start programs. The
results of the assessments -- scheduled to be administered for
the first time this fall -- would help determine where to target
resources, they said.
"This is necessary to ensure that every child is progressing the
way that they should," said Windy Hill, chief of the Head Start
Bureau, which oversees the nation's premier early childhood
program. Head Start provides an array of social and educational
services to low-income preschoolers and their families.
Some experts and leaders of local Head Start programs criticized
the government's National Reporting on Child Outcomes plan,
saying it amounts to a high-stakes test for preschoolers that
will yield little useful information because children are too
young to be evaluated with a standardized exam.
"Young children are poor test takers . . . and have a restricted
ability to comprehend assessment cues," said Samuel J. Meisels,
president of the Erikson Institute, a nonprofit organization
that trains child development professionals.
The national reporting system is the latest effort in a major
early-childhood initiative announced last spring by President
Bush, who wants to shift Head Start's focus from nurturing
children's social and emotional development to emphasizing early
literacy. Bush views the program as a follow-up to his K-12
education program, which emphasizes standardized tests.
Last year, the administration began the early-childhood
initiative by promoting literacy seminars for local Head Start
officials, many of whom said they were pressured to learn and
use techniques that they didn't want or need.
Critics say promoting literacy over other services that develop
a child's social and emotional well-being is counterproductive
because Head Start children are unable to focus on learning
their ABC's if they are burdened by other troubles.
Hill said the assessment, whose form has not yet been
determined, would not be "a test." Opponents of the plan said
they feared whatever assessment is used would amount to a test,
one that would provide often unreliable results and help
undermine Head Start's mission.
"So far the sole emphasis of this effort has been on what
classroom teachers do, nothing on what families do," George
Davis, a Head Start program director in Rockford, Ill., said
yesterday to applause from the conference audience.
Hill said the administration is focusing on literacy first
because it has limited funds, and would expand its efforts
The new reporting system would require all Head Start
4-year-olds to be evaluated in the fall with what Hill called "a
battery" of assessment instruments. They would be assessed again
in the spring to measure improvements, she said.
Hill said the assessments would be "looking for language
development" but that it was too early to say exactly what would
be tested because the measures are still being developed. It
also remains to be determined who would give the tests, how much
they would cost and how they would be funded -- concerns voiced
by Head Start directors yesterday. Field testing of some of the
measures will be conducted this spring, and moved into the field
this fall, Hill said.
Local Head Start programs have historically developed their own
assessment instruments, sometimes using different ones for
children with different needs. Most attempt to evaluate various
aspects of a child's development; the new system would, at
first, assess only language development. Hill said local
assessment regimes would not be affected because the new system
will be supplemental.
Joan E. Ohl, commissioner of the Health and Human Services
Department's Administration on Children, Youth and Families,
which oversees Head Start, said federal officials have never
really been able to evaluate local Head Start programs because
of the different assessment systems in use.
"We do not have an across-the-board, systematic set of core
data," she said.
But some local program directors questioned whether it is
possible to create a standardized assessment that is valid and
reliable for 4-year-olds across the country, including those
with special needs and non-English speakers.
Craig Ramey, a co-director of the Center on Health and Education
at Georgetown University who is heading the group creating the
assessment, acknowledged there are "a limited number of
high-quality, usable tools" on the market but that his panel
would find what works.
"Will the system be perfect?" he said. "Of course not. Nothing
Ramey's panel is working with Westat, a research company being
paid $1.8 million to help develop the assessment.
An outstanding issue is who will administer the assessments.
Ramey said teachers would be involved, but suggested some might
be tempted to cheat. "The simple way to game the system is to
have kids not do well in the fall and do well in the spring," he
said, adding that independent verification was key.
Ramey likened the new system to industrial "quality assurance"
"What we are bringing to Head Start is not different from what
you encounter when you go to buy a car," he said, noting that
car buyers trust that companies maintain quality from plant to
Some local directors, who asked not to be identified, said they
feared that federal officials would use data from the new system
to eliminate programs that don't do what they want.
Hill said programs that fail to meet standards have always
risked decertification. But in a recent interview, Wade Horn,
assistant secretary for children and families in HHS, said that
"people who are anxious about the use of this to defund [local
programs] . . . are being overly concerned. We don't anticipate
that happening very often."