U.S. to Review Head Start Program

 

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 later.

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 is."

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" programs.

"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 plant.

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."