State to test for success of pre-K

A two-part assessment will help show how much prekindergarten helped. But some say the test is flawed and out of context.

Published July 26, 2006

Now that a year's worth of 4-year-olds have completed prekindergarten, Florida wants to find out if its state-funded program prepared the youngsters for school.

Experts, however, are questioning whether the state can do a meaningful assessment.

They pointed out that the evaluations won't be done until after students enter kindergarten, months after many of them finished pre-K.

The screening won't take into account what a child knew before entering prekindergarten. Nor does it consider a child's home environment, lifestyle or age - some kindergartners are almost 6 years old while others are barely 5.

"There are a lot of dangers to taking a snapshot piece of data when children enter kindergarten, looking back and making assumptions," said Catherine Scott-Little, an assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "You don't know how much benefit the children got from the program."

But the results could make or break a preschool. Parents will be able to look at these "grades" when choosing a place for their 4-year-old. Bureaucrats will use them to decide which preschools need to go on probation, one step toward banishment from state pre-K.

Education Department officials said they opted for the snapshot because that's what lawmakers required when they approved the $400-million pre-K program in 2004.

"Our focus is what kids are able to do," said Shan Goff, director of the department's office of early learning.

The Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener includes two parts. The bigger piece, called ECHOS, wins praise from educators for its nonintrusive way of evaluating children's knowledge.

Teachers watch students during class to determine whether they have certain skills, such as knowing how to use a book or how to play with others. They then create lesson plans to help each child progress.

Scott-Little applauded the idea of looking at the "whole child" in a normal setting and not pulling students out of class to test them. But she and other experts worry that teachers have had little time to work with the system.

District trainers first saw ECHOS in late June. Classes begin in early August.

Assessment experts also say reliable evaluations require two independent raters with enough time to see the children at work.

Otherwise, "there will be a lot of noise and error in the assessment system, and some pre-K programs will be judged unfairly or too leniently," Nicholas Zill, vice president of the education research firm Westat, wrote in an e-mail.

The second piece, called DIBELS, asks children to identify as many letters and letter sounds as possible in a minute. Educators say that test, conducted away from the classroom and usually by someone other than the teacher, provides limited but important information about literacy.

But many bristle at the technique. Some children buckle in front of a stranger. Others might know the skills but not be able to perform them quickly enough.

"Teachers love it because it's quick, but they hate it because it doesn't give them any information," said Beth Graue, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Teachers must complete each of these parts no later than 30 days after children begin kindergarten - which raises another question: Who really got the students ready?

"Some of my kindergarten teachers have remarked that some of the skills are taught by them," said Lisa Bellock, who oversees kindergarten for the Hillsborough County School District.

The single biggest gripe, though, focuses on the lack of a pretest. Without one, it's impossible to determine which preschools helped children make gains and which enrolled students who already were prepared for kindergarten.

"That is my concern," said Judy Miller, owner of Kids Planet Preschool in St. Petersburg and secretary of the Pinellas County Early Learning Coalition. "Some schools will turn away the developmentally delayed if money is attached. Those are the children we are trying to reach."

Critics of the state law raised concerns before the Legislature adopted it. They argued that private schools, allowed in the law to decide whether to admit any child, might cherry-pick those most likely to succeed. Lawmakers did nothing to address the fears, except to say that the bill banned discrimination.

State Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, the bill's architect, defended the accountability program, saying "you have to start some place." But he conceded that, in hindsight, pre- and post-assessment could help determine which preschools actually are successful.

"I guess one could say that would have been prudent to do," said Goodlette, who will not return to the House because of term limits.

Shelly Garcia, a kindergarten teacher at Tampa's Seminole Heights Elementary School, thinks so. She called the readiness evaluation a "bad tool for the state" if it wants to know about preschool quality.

"Most pre-Ks don't test them going in and going out. They just test them going out and say, 'See, we did a great job,' " Garcia said. "Maybe you did, maybe you didn't."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or 813 269-5304.