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.
Critics also say that the Bush administration offered different reasons for imposing the test, all of which required different assessments.
Administration officials said test scores would be used to improve individual services to specific children and to target teacher training assistance. Officials also said that it was important to establish a way to monitor student progress nationally to help -- and close, when necessary -- Head Start programs.
The test created and given to children beginning in 2003 did not specifically address those issues, Meisels said, nor did it measure how much a preschooler knows or has learned. Meisels said that even if the test were able to capture what a child has learned, it would only measure a small part of what the federal program was created to do.
Horn's department recently issued a memo that said the test is "strongly predictive of many of the academic skills and knowledge that are important for children's success in elementary school." The memo was written by Westat, an independent company the government hired to develop and oversee the National Reporting System.
But Meisels and other assessment experts said Westat's analyses used insufficient samples and the correlations said to be drawn in the research showed poor validity.
Horn said the Bush administration is continuing to try to improve the test and recently added a section designed to measure children's social and emotional development.
Last month, a government-appointed panel recommended more refinements. The key suggestion, panel head Susan Landry said, was aimed at clarifying the test's main purpose: The commission said that it should be used strictly to identify places that need professional development and technical assistance. The test should have no punitive use, she said.
Yale University psychology professor Edward Zigler, who is referred to as the "father of Head Start" for his role in creating and sustaining the program, questioned the Landry panel's independence from the Bush administration while it conducted its work.
Landry, a pediatrics professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, worked for Bush when he was governor of Texas.
Landry said the commission members who were picked by Bush administration officials were experts in their fields and operated with independence.