Friday, May 2, 2008

Learning to count = accountability?

As more state and local governments decide to invest in quality improvements for early childhood education, two questions must be answered: What is the definition of high quality? And how will we know whether the investments have paid off?

Quality really comes in two forms, structural and process. Structural quality is that which can be measured: teacher turnover, child-teacher ratios, facilities, etc. It can set the stage for process quality--what the child experiences. Some elements of process quality are more difficult to measure; for child-teacher interactions, there is no standard for "lovingness." Other elements, however, are more similar to things we do measure in older children, such as educational attainment, behavioral adjustments, and hitting developmental milestones.

Which begs the second question: How do we hold early childhood educators accountable?

This month's State Legislatures magazine asks this same question, noting:

...[D]eciding the fate of preschool programs based on children’s test scores does raise concerns. Today’s teachers commonly use child assessments to help their instruction. But judging schools on these results could change what today is creative, play-based, multi-dimensional learning into practices that are geared only to the assessments. Instead of going outside to explore the changing seasons to learn science and math and engage their curiosity, children may be kept inside to sit and practice their letters and numbers.

The article highlights findings from the final report of the Pew Charitable Trusts' National Early Childhood Accountability Task Force. The report suggests four alternative approaches to accountability for early childhood programs, ranging from a universal analysis of the status of all children in the state, to a specific program-evaluation style analysis of individual providers.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, some 20 states are already utilizing the universal approach, by assessing children's school readiness status as they enter Kindergarten. Other states model the federal Head Start program and design program-specific accountability tests. At least one state evaluates individual preschool classrooms.

Any sort of testing of very young children is controversial. But as Samuel Meisels of the Erikson Institute puts it in a paper entitled Accountability in early childhood: No easy answers, high-stakes testing is "a failure because it ignore[s] the complexity of early childhood development, which teaches us that no single indicator can assess a child's skills, achievements, or personality." Dr. Meisels argues four reasons for not using high-stakes tests as accountability:

  1. Practical problems of measurement. Most young children are developmentally not ready for test taking.
  2. Unintended consequences. The probable result of high-stakes tests, teaching to the test, is risky in early childhood, when diversity of experience is most needed.
  3. Opportunity to learn. Tests that ignore children's backgrounds and prior opportunities to learn can hinder programs from tailoring teaching to meet children's individual needs.
  4. Variability and predictability. Early development is a time of extensive change, which occurs in spurts and not in a linear, predictable fashion. Long-term conclusions cannot be drawn from brief snapshots of a child's abilities.

Dr. Meisels recommends, instead, that program evaluations be conducted of individual early care and education providers with only a sample of children tested, to answer policymakers' questions about what is being taught, how, and how well.

The nuances between accountability, high stakes testing, and program evaluation may not matter to policymakers, however. In an era where no child is to be left behind, the more data on individual children the better, it seems. In fact, parents may be just as reliant on this data as policymakers. If your older child's progress is monitored and reported yearly, and put in context alongside his classmates' scores, you may wonder why your preschooler's progress seems to be getting less attention.

Indeed, there are no easy answers for policymakers wanting to spend public money wisely, as they are likely to be confronted with parents who want more information, educators who are divided on the benefits of testing, and taxpayers who see high price tags on nearly every option.

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