On January 17, 2003, The Washington Post published a Page 1 story (that I wrote) about the Republican Bush administration’s plans to give 908,000 4-year-olds in Head Start programs nationwide a standardized assessment to see how much they were learning.

Critics howled. Early childhood development experts said preschoolers are too young to be evaluated by standardized tests in part because they don’t have sufficient ability to comprehend assessment cues. The plan was shelved.

Flash forward eight years. Today it’s the Democratic Obama administration that is pushing standardized assessments for preschoolers. Not only is there no loud shouting, but a gaggle of states are going to battle each other for the right to win federal funds that will help them implement the second wave of Race to the Top, early childhood version.

In the first part of Race to the Top, President Obama’s signature education initiative, 11 states and the District of Columbia collectively won $4 billion last year to push school reforms favored by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The department recently announced the early childhood education chapter of the sweepstakes, this one promising to dispense a total of $500 million to winners who wow the judges, Duncan being the ultimate decider after lesser judges make their own recommendations.

Criteria recently released for states to consider as they write their applications get to the heart of the matter immediately:

Priority 1: Absolutely Priority — Using Early Learning and Development Standards and Kindergarten Entry Assessments to Promote School Readiness.”

(And here are the rest of the stated priorities:

Priority 2: Absolute Priority – Using Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems to Promote School Readiness

Priority 3: Competitive Preference Priority – Including all Early Learning and Development Programs in the Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System Priority

4: Invitational Priority – Sustaining Program Effects in the Early Elementary Grades

Priority 5: Invitational Priority – Encouraging Private Sector Support)

There is something disturbing about an early childhood education initiative that doesn’t seem to take into account how young children learn best. Where, for example, is the priority about ensuring that all early childhood programs provide creative opportunities for kids to explore and learn? That’s how they best learn, myriad child development experts have said for years.

The institutionalization of standardized assessments for young kids threatens to turn preschool into an academic environment that is too regimented for youngsters.

I know a girl who, when given an aptitude test at age 4, refused to answer the questions because she just didn’t feel like it that day. That’s the way 4-year-olds act sometimes. She was scored as essentially having the aptitude of a monkey. That’s the way standardized assessments are, and that’s no way to judge a 4-year-old.

The Race to the Top criteria say that any assessments developed should conform with the recommendations of the National Research Council’s reports on early childhood.

One such report, published in 2008, entitled Early Childhood Assessment: Why, What, and How,” makes clear how difficult it is to create valid assessments for young children:

“Assessments of any type must be selected and implemented with care, but special attention is needed when using direct assessments with young children. It requires greater attention to establishing a relationship with the child, to ascertaining whether the task is familiar and comprehensible to him or her, to limiting length of the session and the child’s discomfort, to recognizing the role of conditions like hunger or fatigue, and to recognizing the possibility of bias if the tester is a caregiver or otherwise connected to the child. Instruments that have the most user-appeal often do not have the best psychometric properties. For example, portfolios of children’s artistic productions contain rich information but are hard to rate reliably. In the experience of committee members, selection of instruments is often more influenced by cost, by ease of administration, and by use in other equivalent programs than by the criteria proposed here.”

It is, of course, possible that these assessments will be brilliantly constructed. I’m just not holding my breath.


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