Head Start Testing Plan Draws Fire

K-12 Testing

A Bush administration plan to start annual assessment of 900,000 preschoolers in the nation’s Head Start programs represents a troubling downward trend of test-based accountability to the nation’s youngest students.


A Department of Health and Human Services proposal would implement twice yearly assessments in literacy and number knowledge for all the 4- and 5-year-olds in Head Start, beginning this fall. Called the National Reporting on Child Outcomes plan, it is meant to test children on a number of educational performance measures, including recognizing a word as a unit of print, identifying at least 10 letters of the alphabet, associating sounds with written words and so on.


President George W. Bush reportedly views this assessment plan as part of an effort to shift Head Start’s focus from nurturing children’s social and emotional development to emphasizing early literacy.


The plan has drawn widespread condemnation from early childhood development experts, with 269 academics in the field signing a letter to members of the U.S. Congress expressing concern about the Head Start assessments and suggesting ways to improve the testing plan and reduce any potential harm.


The letter said, “It is widely accepted that learning that occurs in early childhood is episodic and uneven, with great variability among children. The National Research Council, in its report called 'Eager to Learn: Educating our Preschoolers,' warns that due to this episodic learning and the widespread dissatisfaction with traditional standardized tests — especially those used for accountability — assessments ‘must be used carefully and appropriately if they are to resolve, and not create, educational problems.’”
(See a copy of the letter at http://www.fairtest.org/nattest/Head_Start_Letter.html)


Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Erikson Institute, a nonprofit that trains child development professionals, says he believes the goals of improving instruction and finding out if the taxpayers’ investment in the program is paying off are laudable. However, he questions whether testing preschoolers in this way will achieve these goals.


In a commentary in the March 19 edition of Education Week, Meisels wrote: “Here’s what’s wrong: Though not labeled ‘high stakes,’ the proposed plan has all of the characteristics and potential dangers of a high-stakes test. Research demonstrates, for example, that the labeling that accompanies high-stakes tests can have a long-term impact on teachers’ perceptions of children’s ability to learn; can result in stigmatizing children and tracking them into low-achieving groups; and can make a long-lasting impression on children’s self-perceptions, estimates of their own abilities, and motivation and achievement. These consequences are very real for young children.”


(See http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2003/03/19/27meisels.h22.html).


In the 1990s, states and districts reduced their reliance on standardized testing of young children (see Examiner, Summer 1998). The renewed emphasis on accountability testing is now pushing such dangerous exams on to younger and younger children.