D.C. charter board approves new preschool evaluation tool

The D.C. Public Charter School Board has approved a revised evaluation tool for preschools that is one of the first efforts in the country to tie the success of early learning programs to the academic performance of their students.

The original proposal prompted an outcry from parents who were concerned that the emphasis on academic testing could lead to a narrowing of what children learn in preschool.

The plan, approved Monday night, reflects these concerns by including an optional category that evaluates each school on its specific mission and gives social and emotional development a more equal footing with other criteria for schools that choose to measure it.

Sara Mead, a charter school board member, said the board is deeply committed to ensuring that the District's public charter schools are preparing students for success.

“This is going to give us a way . . . to understand whether schools are accomplishing that,” Mead said. “That’s an important step to fulfilling our commitment to parents and taxpayers in the District.”

Board members said school readiness remains an urgent issue in the District given that more than half of the city’s third-graders lack proficiency in reading and math.

The original proposal drew a large community response, including calls for a more-balanced approach to measuring schools that would factor in the broader developmental needs of young children. An online petition attracted more than 280 signatures, and more than 50 parents submitted written comments to the board.

A task force composed of representatives from most of the city’s 37 charter operators serving early learners began meeting three years ago to develop a framework for such evaluations. The group met last week to approve changes to the proposal based on community feedback.

The task force changed the formula for evaluating pre-kindergarten programs so that progress in math and literacy will count for 28 to 40 percent of the school’s total score, rather than the proposed 45 to 60 percent.

A separate, optional measure of social and emotional growth will be worth 12 percent. The rating of teacher-child interaction will be 40 percent of the total and emphasizes three different categories: emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support.

The formula also will include information about student attendance and one more optional mission-specific performance goal, reflecting individual school themes, such as performing arts or sustainability.

For kindergarten through second-grade programs, math or reading achievement or progress would make up 50 to 70 percent of the total score instead of the proposed 70 to 80 percent.

The majority of schools on the task force voted not to make social-emotional learning a required measure, in part because of questions about whether the assessments are reliable or predictive of future success. They plan to revisit the question in a few years, said Erin Kupferberg, a quality and accountability specialist for the charter school board.

Sam Chaltain, a charter school parent and public school advocate, said that he appreciated the board’s responsiveness to parental concerns but that he wanted the ­changes to go further.

“If almost everyone agrees these social and emotional skills are valuable in and of themselves, it does not seem it’s the kind of thing that should be made optional,” Chaltain said.

Several charter leaders also had requested ­changes to the proposal. They questioned the validity of using the results of a wide range of early childhood tests to compare schools’ performance and asked the board not to rank schools with the results.

Unlike state-level standardized tests used for older students, tests given to young learners are often observational, administered by the teachers while children are playing and learning in the course of their day. And schools can choose from among more than three dozen tests that are already being used.

For early childhood programs, the framework will look at “how good are you at the assessment you chose to do,” said Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, deputy director of the charter school board.

Some school leaders said that ranking schools could motivate them to choose the easiest assessments rather than tests that offer the most meaningful feedback.

The task force will analyze the different test results for comparability. And starting in kindergarten, they will look to see how well the results of the different assessments line up with performance on standardized tests in third grade, Kupferberg said.

Kristin Scotchmer, executive director of Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School, said she was glad to see the board delay ranking schools for a year.

“They recognize we need a year to consider what the implications of tiering schools might be,” she said. “It gives us time for that conversation.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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