Preschoolers' Test May Be Suspended

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 18, 2007

Congress is moving to end a standardized test backed by the Bush administration and given to hundreds of thousands of preschool children in Head Start programs each year, amid complaints from early childhood experts that the exam is developmentally inappropriate and poorly designed.

The National Reporting System, a set of mini-tests said to measure verbal and math skills, has been given in Head Start programs each fall and spring since 2003.

Bush administration officials say the test is necessary to help determine how well the nearly 2,700 Head Start programs in the country are progressing. Before the national test was introduced, each Head Start program used its own assessments to monitor student progress.

Critics question whether the test accurately measures how much a child learns and cite a 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that raised concerns about the way the test has been implemented.

This spring, the test is scheduled to be administered to 410,000 4- and 5-year-olds unless Congress moves to end it. On Wednesday, the House Education and Labor Committee voted to end the test in a vote on the reauthorization of Head Start, a preschool program started in the mid-1960s to improve the lives of at-risk children and their families. The full House is expected to vote on the measure as soon as this week.

A Senate subcommittee passed a bill with the same measure last month, and the full Senate is to take up the bill soon. It is expected that members will vote to suspend the test.

The Bush administration promoted an overhaul of Head Start, especially the National Reporting System, as part of the president's major early-childhood initiative, a follow-up to his K-12 No Child Left Behind program, which emphasizes standardized tests. It was also seen as an attempt to shift Head Start's focus from nurturing children's social and emotional development to emphasizing literacy.

Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, said that although the test was rushed into implementation in 2003 -- it was important to start the process, he said -- it has been improved and is valid.

"Some of the criticism is criticism that we agree with, and some of it is rather silly," Horn said.

The controversy over the assessment underscores a key but often ignored component in the national debate about standardized testing: How is it determined whether a test measures what it is intended to measure? Experts say that one way is to do extensive field testing before an assessment is implemented, which was not done for the National Reporting System.

Another concern of early childhood experts is the practicality of testing young children.

Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development, said that young children are generally poor test takers because of their limited abilities to stay focused and comprehend assessment cues.

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