Pre-kindergarten children at LEAP Academy Early Childhood School work on art projects. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

The controversy over academic testing has spread to an unlikely frontier in Washington: preschool.

Some D.C. parents are protesting a proposal by the city’s public charter school board to rank preschools based largely on how children as young as 3 are performing on reading and math tests.

The board set out to provide parents with a clearer picture of how charter schools compare with one another. It also wants to provide educators with a way to measure progress toward the goal of better preparing children for school, a goal that led city leaders to make a historic investment in universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.

But as of Saturday, more than 200 parents had signed a petition asking the board to take a broader look at school quality and put more weight on the social and emotional development they want to see emphasized in their children’s schools.

“People are going to focus on what is measured,” said Luba Vangelova, a parent who spoke against the plan at a public hearing this month. “This is going to steal time away from the things that really matter, like play and exploration.”

Early assessments of reading and math skills are administered in preschool classes throughout the country, but they are typically used to improve instruction and target lessons to children’s varying needs.

The charter school board’s rating system could inform decisions about whether a charter school would be closed, according to Sara Mead, a member of the public charter school board. Some parents also worry that it could harm fundraising and student recruitment.

As government-funded preschool programs have grown nationwide, so have efforts to provide consistent information on the quality of those programs. But there is considerable debate about how best to measure outcomes in preschools that have a role not just in cognitive development but also in the physical, social and emotional growth of children.

Still, many educators say that third grade, the year standardized test scores are first reported for federal accountability purposes, is too late to begin assembling an objective picture of how students are performing academically.

By third grade, only 43 percent of D.C. third-graders are proficient in math and 44 percent in reading, according to the latest results on the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System.

Most of the three dozen early education charter school operators in the District took part in a task force to help shape the “performance management framework” for preschool through second grade. They largely supported the framework.

“The whole promise of early childhood education is as an early intervention to close the preparation gap before kindergarten,” said Jack McCarthy, president and chief executive of AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter Schools in the District.

The charter school board is accepting public comment on the proposal until Wednesday.

The initiative would be among the first at the preschool level to attach high stakes to the results, said Thomas Schultz, director of early childhood initiatives for the Council of Chief State School Officers.

A 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences urged “extreme caution” in basing high-stakes decisions on assessments of young children, particularly in “well-defined academic content areas.”

Ayize Sabater, chief executive of Shining Stars Montessori Academy, said he participated in the task force and suggested that there might be unintended consequences of tying rankings to math and literacy test results.

“Where before we might have been more concerned about the child’s holistic development, and allowing them to move with their natural developmental process, now would we start teaching to the test?” Sabater said.

The early education initiative — which would replace schools’ individual accountability plans — would evaluate schools based on children’s progress in literacy, use of language, and math, as well as teacher quality and school attendance. Literacy and math would be weighted to account for 45 to 60 percent of the total score. A social and emotional assessment, weighted at 15 percent, would be optional.

Board officials said the tool they use to evaluate the quality of teachers’ interactions with preschool students, which accounts for 30 percent of the preschool rating, also considers social and emotional development.

For kindergarten through second grade, math and reading performance would account for between 70 and 80 percent of a school’s rating, with an optional social and emotional component weighted at 10 percent.

Schools would choose from a list of more than two dozen assessments already used for early learners. Many of the tests are given one-on-one, or the results are based on a teacher’s observations of children playing.

“Every school leader [on the task force] agreed that social emotional is a huge component of early learning, but they did not agree that it should be a mandated part of the framework,” said Erin Kupferberg, a quality and accountability specialist for the charter school board.

Traditional D.C. public schools are taking a different approach to assessment. They evaluate how students are developing in areas that including language, literacy, math, social, emotional and physical skills.

They use test results to improve instruction and inform parents — not to rank the schools, said Danielle Ewen, director of early childhood education for D.C. public schools.

If children don’t develop the motor skills to climb up a slide, they are likely to have a difficult time holding a pencil, Ewen said. If they struggle to follow directions, they are unlikely to do well on a reading activity.

“We do not weigh one over the other, because they are all connected,” she said.

Emma Brown contributed to this report.