House Votes to End Test Central to GOP's Shift on Head Start

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 3, 2007

The House dealt a blow to President Bush's chief early-childhood initiative yesterday, voting to end the standardized testing of 4-year-olds, which was at the heart of his efforts to refocus Head Start.

Supporters of the legislation, which would boost spending on the program and includes provisions to improve teacher quality, said it was aimed at ending Republican efforts to shift the focus of the 42-year-old program from nurturing social and emotional development to emphasizing literacy.

"We are back on the right track," said Sarah Greene, president of the National Head Start Association, a nonprofit group that promotes the program.

Head Start Director Channell Wilkins said he was pleased that the bill had passed but said he had some qualms, especially about the elimination of the testing.

"I'm still concerned that we don't have any kind of assessment tool to show the progress our kids are making," he said.

Democrats said the bill, which passed 365 to 48, signaled a new approach to social and education policy in Congress after control for years by Republicans.

"They tried to starve programs like this," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). "We are going to start unstarving them."

The bill, which would reauthorize the program for the first time since 1998, would increase spending on Head Start from $6.9 billion for the current fiscal year to $7.4 billion for fiscal 2008 and would require that at least 50 percent of Head Start teachers have a bachelor's degree by 2013.

It would also make room for as many as 10,000 more youngsters, reversing a participation decline, from 912,000 in 2002 to 909,000 last year. More money would also be directed to programs for younger children and migrant and Indian students, and the bill requires that 25 percent of the new money be used to raise teacher salaries and benefits.

Head Start, seen as the nation's leading preschool program for the poor, started 42 years ago to help children and their families prepare for school academically as well in the social, psychological and health arenas. Services include sending children to a dentist, doctor or mental health professional and teaching them how to hold a fork or use a toilet.

The White House proposed a historic shift several years ago to give states broad control over their Head Start programs, but it never won congressional approval.

It also sought to place increased emphasis on literacy education, and officials created the National Reporting System, a set of mini-tests aimed at measuring verbal and math skills in preschool children. It was seen as a natural follow-up to Bush's No Child Left Behind program for kindergarten through 12th grade, which also emphasizes standardized tests.

The administration began requiring in 2003 that tests be given in Head Start programs each fall and spring, saying it was the only way to systematically measure the country's nearly 2,700 programs. Before that, Head Start programs used their own assessments to monitor student progress, and they have continued to do so.

Hundreds of thousands of children ages 4 and 5 were given the test annually, despite concerns from early-childhood experts that the exam was given too early in children's development and was poorly designed.

The House voted to end the National Reporting System while calling for a new, more accurate way to gauge student progress. The Senate version also seeks to end the current testing.

"The tests that were given were absolutely, at best, useless," said Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-Mich.), the bill's sponsor. "We may go back to testing, but only after we get some scientific information about what to test for and how to test."

The Senate is expected to take up its version of Head Start reauthorization within a few weeks, but the measure has some key differences from the House version, including the provision about teacher quality.

Efforts to reauthorize Head Start stalled in the past two Republican-led Congresses in part over proposed rules that would allow faith-based groups to consider religion in hiring for Head Start programs.

Democratic leaders refused to allow the amendment to come up for a vote yesterday, and the House beat back an effort, 222 to 195, to force the legislation back to committee to consider the issue.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company