GAO Slams Head Start Testing

K-12 Testing

A federally mandated testing system for Head Start children is not reliable or valid enough to provide useful information on the programs' effectiveness, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released. The report echoed earlier criticism from experts and advocates for quality early childhood education.


The May GAO report, titled "Head Start, Further Development Could Allow Results to Be Used for Decision Making," examined the National Reporting System (NRS), implemented in September 2003 to gauge how well 400,000 4- and 5-year-old Head Start children are progressing. According to the GAO, "results from the first year of the NRS are of limited value for accountability purposes because the Head Start Bureau has not shown that the NRS meets professional standards for such uses." Such standards demand that accountability systems provide reliable information on student progress and results that are valid measures of preschool learning. The report added, "The NRS also may not provide sufficient information to target technical assistance to the Head Start centers and classrooms that need it most."


Early childhood experts and advocates have consistently opposed the NRS approach, questioning its age appropriateness and the cultural fairness of test questions. They also said it was too narrow and neglected to assess important areas of child development.


"A host of factors make it unrealistic to measure 4- and 5- year-olds' progress with an unproven standardized test," said Yasmine Daniel, Director of Early Childhood Development for the Children's Defense Fund. "Early childhood assessment is effective when used as a tool to improve curricula and classroom teaching. Tests, however, are
an entirely different matter. They are not a good predictor of children's learning. Children's skills are constantly changing. What they do not know today, they may very well know tomorrow. Early childhood development is a process, not a conclusion."


Noted early childhood expert Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, said the GAO report underscores the need for thoughtful approaches to assessing young children that will do no harm.


"Any test used for high stakes purposes -- let alone one that has now been administered nearly 2 million times at an estimated cost in excess of $50 million -- should be valid and reliable. With young children, especially, it's essential that tests not stigmatize children, that they not distort teaching, and that they do no harm. The GAO report suggests that the NRS has a long way to go to meet these criteria," Meisels said.


- See Examiner, Spring 2005, for Meisels' article on testing young children.