Now, Standardized Achievement Tests in Head Start
Ohanian Comment: The test for 4-year-olds "The test reflects the philosophy and principles behind the No Child Left Behind law, which emphasizes literacy and math, and has imposed testing for children starting in the third grade as a key to raising academic achievement." One of the head honchos compares testing four-year-olds to quality assurance in automobiles.
MIDLAND, Tex. — The new federal emphasis on accountability in education reached Nate Kidder recently in the form of his first standardized achievement test. Nate is 4 years old.
He sat on the edge of his chair in the cafeteria at the West Early Childhood Center, where he is a Head Start child, and chewed his lip. Patricia Stevens, the center's principal, gave him the 15-minute exam, asking questions on simple vocabulary, letter recognition and math. At one point, she showed Nate a page with four pictures and asked him to point to the one that matched the word "vase."
Nate Kidder, whose feet barely touched the floor when he sat down, is in the midst of a historic moment in early education: More than half a million 4-year-olds in Head Start programs around the country are taking the same test, which has been mandated by the Bush administration. The largest standardized testing of such young children ever in this country, it has exposed a bitter divide between federal officials and many experts in early education.
Federal officials say the test will improve the quality of Head Start, the 38-year-old program intended to prepare poor children for kindergarten. But many of the country's leading education experts, and Head Start providers and teachers, say the test could harm the children as well as Head Start, which is widely regarded as one of the nation's most successful antipoverty programs.
The test reflects the philosophy and principles behind the No Child Left Behind law, which emphasizes literacy and math, and has imposed testing for children starting in the third grade as a key to raising academic achievement. Federal officials say the Head Start test will not be used to judge individual children but to evaluate the thousands of Head Start programs around the country.
Craig Ramey, a psychologist and professor at Georgetown University who heads the committee that advised federal officials about the test, talks about it in the language of business.
"If you were the head of any industry I know — automobiles, pharmaceuticals, take any product you would use — you would have a quality assurance system in place to determine how your product is faring in terms of quality," Dr. Ramey said.
The Head Start test, he said, "is just another quality assurance program."
But critics say the test is flawed and meaningless for such young children, whose development is in enormous flux.
Nate had arrived at school — among the first Head Start centers in the nation to administer the test — with an eager smile that morning. It was his turn to be his teacher's morning helper.
But he was clearly nervous as he took the test. He pointed tentatively to the picture of a canister, not the vase. The principal made a notation, but gave no sign of whether Nate had gotten the right answer. She is not allowed to. The test instructions require that children be given only "neutral encouragement."
"These children don't know how to play the testing game," Mrs. Stevens said. "You don't know if they really know something, or they guessed."
Experts also say the test fails to take into account the complex lives and needs of children living in poverty.
"When you get an answer from a child living in poverty, it's not a very good indicator of their capacity," said Dr. Edward Zigler, a psychologist, a founder of Head Start, and the director of the Center on Children and Social Policy at Yale University. "They have a variety of motivational factors that get in the way. If you grew up in poverty, you become wary and suspicious of adults you don't know, and testing situations."
Wade Horn, the federal official in charge of Head Start, said that extensive field testing had been done to make certain not only that the test is reliable, but also that children find it "fun, interesting and enjoyable."
The test was clearly not Nate Kidder's idea of fun. When Mrs. Stevens showed him four pictures of people with different facial expressions, and asked him to point to the one that matched the word "horrified," he bit his lip and looked at her for reassurance.
But following the test instructions, Mrs. Stevens gave nothing away. Nate pointed to the picture of the woman, with her mouth wide open and her hands raised toward her face, who was supposed to look horrified.
Mrs. Stevens said later that she found the question, among others, ridiculous. " `Horrified' is not a word we teach children," she said.
Samuel J. Meisels, a specialist in early childhood assessment who has developed his own system to evaluate young children and is president of Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development in Chicago, said he saw several problems with the test. For instance, Dr. Meisels, as well as Mrs. Stevens and the teachers at the West Center, said they thought the black and white drawings used to test language and vocabulary were poorly conceived.
"Our children don't see pictures like that," said Nate Kidder's teacher, Jana Little.
In addition, Dr. Meisels and the teachers say that many of the drawings — and the questions — are out of context and not part of the children's experience. For example, Mrs. Stevens said, how would the children at her center know that the drawing of tree stumps and long grass sticking out of water is supposed to be a swamp?
"We don't have swamps in Midland," she said.
As for the vase question, many children at the West Center, Mrs. Stevens said, may not have vases in their homes.
The children — and others around the country — will take a similar test in the spring so their progress can be measured.
Mrs. Stevens said she was not opposed to testing. She and her teachers do observational assessments all the time, she said. But she said she felt uncomfortable giving Nate a formal test.
"Most of us in early childhood are very nurturing people," she said. "We want to nurture children — to say, `Gosh, yes, you did a good job, that's right.' "
Mrs. Little said she worried that standardized testing would undercut the confidence of children like Nate, who is bright, but afraid of making mistakes.
"If you ask him to do something," Mrs. Little said, "his smile freezes, and you see him worry, `Am I going to get this right?' "
For Mrs. Little and her colleagues, building confidence — as well as teaching children how to be a part of a classroom and not disrupt it, and how to share — is just as important preparation for kindergarten as teaching vocabulary words.
But these skills are not part of the test, which reflects the Bush administration's belief that Head Start's priority should be helping children learn the basic elements of reading.
Opponents of the test agree with federal officials that Head Start needs to be improved. But they say its success over the years can be tied to its broad focus on children's emotional, physical and social growth, as well as their cognitive development. They say they worry that Head Start teachers will start teaching to the test — and overemphasizing literacy and math skills.
Many of the children at the West Center here have parents working at minimum-wage jobs at Wal-Mart, Burger King or other businesses. Some parents are barely out of their teens.
Mrs. Stevens said she had decided that the parents did not need to know about the new test.
"They're already stressed out enough as it is," she said.
At the Head Start center, John Ross Espino, a chatty 4-year-old, was a lot more interested in talking to Mrs. Stevens than in answering her test questions. When she asked him to point to the picture that corresponded to the word "diving," he told her, "I have swimming lessons today."
Normally, Mrs. Stevens said, she would have been delighted to talk with John Ross about his swimming lessons. But in keeping with the test instructions, she proceeded to the next question.
Now, Standardized Achievement Tests in Head Start
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