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Testing and Assessment Monitors Head Start Issues

The Office of Testing and Assessment has been monitoring issues related to the reauthorization of a 38-year-old federal Head Start program that currently serves over 900,000 low income children.

By Frank Beylotte and Marianne Ernesto

The Office of Testing and Assessment has been monitoring issues related to the reauthorization of a 38-year-old federal Head Start program that currently serves over 900,000 low income children. Overseen by the Health and Human Services Administration (HHS), Head Start is a "child-focused program with the overall goal of increasing the school readiness" in many developmental domains including cognitive, social and physical. The Office of Testing and Assessment has been following the Head Start reauthorization with close attention to the potential use of assessments for these children.

A version of the reauthorization that mirrors the Bush Administration's initiative (Good Start, Grow Smart) passed the House of Representatives (School Readiness Act of 2003) in July 2003 by a one-vote margin. Not unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, this legislation contains a significant accountability component. For example, "Head Start contracts issued by HHS will be evaluated according to test scores in early literacy, language, and numeracy skills" (HHS, 2002). The exclusive focus on the cognitive domain has stirred considerable controversy.

The Senate is expected to debate its own version of the legislation in the next few months and will likely approve one that differs from the House version. In the current Senate bill, the proposed assessments associated with the reauthorizations are not solely focused on the cognitive domain. These include among early literacy, language, and numeracy skills, social and emotional development, physical development and progress toward acquisition of English language (for limited English proficient children).

Furthermore, the Senate bill proposes that a National Academy of Sciences panel consider the appropriateness of additional educational standards and recommended educational outcomes. At the heart of the issue is what should two to four year old children know as they gear up for kindergarten? How do we reliably measure developmentally appropriate skills that should be enhanced by Head Start?

This winter, as lawmakers try to build a consensus on creating a testing based accountability system for Head Start that is both valid and reliable, the Office of Testing and Assessment will work with the Public Policy Office to inform the current debate on childhood assessments. APA staff are commenting on the Senate legislation and support the call for the National Academies study to review the state of the science on assessment for pre-school aged children given that few assessments have been developed and tested for the pre-school population.