Public Policy Forum Blog

Grading preschools based on Kindergartners' performance

Texas is now the first state in the nation to evaluate the quality of classrooms in its preschools, Head Start programs, and child care centers based on how well their children do once they've gone on to Kindergarten.

Under the Texas School Ready! program, children will take two tests as Kindergartners--one will measure their reading and pre-reading skills, the other their social skills. Preschool classrooms for which 80% or more of their children perform well on the tests will receive a new state certification. The program was piloted last year as an evaluation of 1,000 preschool classrooms across the state; 450 passed muster, 300 were disqualified for technical reasons, and the others were found to be of poor quality.

Classrooms that do not earn the certification will not be penalized, but their preschool may qualify for monies to improve teacher training.

Participation in the program is voluntary for the early childhood programs that desire the new certification. The program is state funded, at an estimated $1 million per year, and was designed by the Texas State Center for Early Childhood Development (a division of the University of Texas' Children's Learning Institute) at a cost of $4 million.

This program is a bit of a hybrid between state regulation and parental accountability. Participation is voluntary, but the state expects that enough parents will demand preschool classrooms with the new seal of approval that most preschools will participate. Of course, this assumes that parents will know and understand enough about the certification to seek it out when choosing a child care center or preschool. If the state doesn't adequately promote the new certification or explain the standards, parents won't know they've been empowered to hold preschools accountable.

If parents do, in fact, begin to demand only certified preschool classrooms, there is the risk that Kindergartners will start to feel the pressure that only high-stakes standardized tests can bring. Some of that risk is alleviated by the fact that the tests will be administered in the elementary schools and not the child care centers or preschools themselves (although many public elementary schools in Texas also provide preschool). However, Texas' three-year-olds may very well see many more worksheets and much less free play in the future if market forces act as anticipated.

As a researcher, this program is intriguing...a similar analysis of Wisconsin's early childhood programs may be beneficial. But the practical questions are great: How do you keep track of a state-wide Kindergarten cohort's previous schooling experiences? How are the tests the state or school district? Are Kindergartners in private schools included?

If this program seems to work in Texas, it will likely be adopted elsewhere. It's the kind of thing a school district could do on its own. What if MPS could provide a list of the K4 and preschool programs that produced the most successful Kindergartners in the city? My guess is that policymakers and private foundations would be just as interested in that list as parents.

Anneliese Dickman