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Assessment of an Early Investment

December 27, 2008 By Alli Williams, Policy Research Associate

Most Minnesotans agree on the importance of nurturing children in their early years, yet disagreement arises when we try to determine what quality early childhood education looks like, and how we can measure the success of our efforts.  The state has begun assessing early learning through a study targeted at kindergarten children and, by extension, those responsible for promoting their development.  

Assessing children between birth and five years old is complex.  Young children are constantly growing as they learn to manipulate their own bodies, relate to peers and adults, question their surroundings and begin to solve problems independently.  Benchmarks in these areas create a means for gauging developmental progress, yet at the same time pose the danger of oversimplifying the process if they are not approached with care.        

For Minnesota's early childhood educators, the complicated task of assessing progress has become a reality as they attempt to explore whether children are ready to enter the educational system.  In 2002 the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) began examining a representative sample of incoming kindergarteners to gain a better understanding of children's school readiness.  This assessment, repeated in subsequent years, asks teachers to observe students based on indicators of social and emotional, physical and cognitive development.

"Kids come from a variety of experiences and backgrounds, and the assessment allows us to capture and appreciate those differences," said Barbara O'Sullivan, Early Childhood Services Supervisor with the MDE.  

Creators and supporters of the assessment remain vocal that it should not be viewed as a test.  

Todd Otis, President of Ready 4 K, an organization that promotes school readiness initiatives in the state, phrased it this way, "Instead of thinking of it like the SATs, think of it like a check up with your doctor."  

Trained teachers observe children's behavior as they participate in regular activities, rather than administer an actual test.  The assessment's purpose is to review overall progress, not create specific skill mandates that define passing or failing grades.  The MDE is not saying that by the time a child enters kindergarten he/she must be able to recite the alphabet, tie his/her shoe and solve basic arithmetic problems.  Instead, the assessment outlines a range of behaviors and skills that demonstrate progress in a variety of areas deemed important for later success.

For each question teachers are asked to assign students a score of Not Yet, In Process, or Proficient.  Such assessment language acknowledges that each skill or behavior develops along a continuum.  A child does not move from illegible scribbling one day to writing complete words the next, rather there is a growth process reflected in the acquisition of all the skills that will eventually comprise a child's emotional and intellectual intelligence.  There is no magic formula for deciding when a child is ready for kindergarten; rather parents, childcare providers and school officials must look at the composite picture for determining what it takes to be ready.

The study is a positive step toward understanding the assets of Minnesota's early education system; however, the results must be used with caution. The growing emphasis on school readiness across the country has the potential for improving our educational framework.  Yet the educational culture that has emerged from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is one increasingly focused on outcomes.  A prevalent concern of educators across Minnesota and the nation is the move toward standardized testing not only limits their ability to explore creative curriculum options, but also prevents them from adjusting for individual student needs.  If this test-focused mentality permeates the kindergarten and preschool classrooms, we risk depriving children of the rounded and dynamic education crucial to shaping early development.

"Nationally, this is a hot issue, and we do not intend for this to turn into No Baby Left Behind," noted O'Sullivan, "It is to be used to inform programs and parents, but not to place burdens on the child."

Otis and his colleague Zoe Nicholie of Ready 4 K warn against mutation of the assessment into a high stakes testing system.  The logic of high stakes testing such as  that mandated by NCLB is that schools should be held accountable for their test results, and by linking progress to funding levels schools will be more motivated to improve.  One of the problems with this logic, however, is that it fails to account for the myriad of outside influences that impact young people's ability to learn and be successful.  Health, parental involvement, and early education exposure are only a few of the factors that, according to Nicholie and Otis, influence a child's early development.  If assessment results are directly tied to kindergarten or preschool funding, they ignore the complex web of influences shaping children's growth.       

Another danger of linking assessment results to early education funding is the potential for narrowing the scope of examination.  Otis highlighted the importance of assessing "the whole child without undo emphasis on pre-academic domains.  Social and emotional development are extremely important in ensuring children are ready."  Some of the most basic skills our children learn in their toddler and preschool years may not appear to be directly linked to their future education.  It is clear that these skills are the foundation of each child's social, emotional and intellectual maturity.  Before children can learn to read and write, they must develop a love for learning and exploration.  Before they can participate as a member of a class, they must learn to work with their peers and resolve conflicts. Without a conscious recognition of their importance, the social and emotional elements of our children's development are in danger of being neglected for the sake of more traditionally academic skills.  

The Minnesota study is a significant first step in creating a comprehensive assessment tool to explore children's social, emotional, physical and intellectual development.  Our next step is to draw upon these results to highlight Minnesota early childhood educators' strengths, and identify growth areas, develop concrete solutions to help all children become ready to learn.  

Our future prosperity depends on educating the next generation of Minnesotans.  Early childhood education is a sound investment with a large return.  Parents and providers must use these results and continue to push policymakers to invest in early education and set the stage for future success.

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