Across the country, states are starting to rate early childhood programs. But Louisiana is taking that movement a step further, requiring all publicly funded programs to “test” their youngest learners, so to speak.

Sarah Carr reports from New Orleans on this complicated new effort.

Click here to listen to audio version of this story.

The three-year-olds at Kids of Excellence childcare center learn largely through play. Kristi Givens, the center’s director, tries to make sure they are ready for big school by the time they leave.

“It is not like we are sitting the kids down in the classroom saying, ‘A, B, C.’ It’s not like that,” she said. “They are learning through play. They are learning their numbers; they are learning their colors; they are learning all the things they have to learn. But they are learning through play.”

Louisiana officials are paying more attention these days to what even the youngest children are learning — or not learning — as the case might be. Starting next year, all publicly funded child care, Head Start, and pre-k programs in the state will have to test their kids. Even the infants. Most New Orleans programs are already piloting the new tests. That doesn’t mean one-year-olds will be sitting down at a desk with bubble sheets and No. 2 pencils. At least not yet.

At the Kids of Excellence child care center in New Orleans the children learn largely through play. (Photo: Sarah Carr)

At the Kids of Excellence child care center in New Orleans the children learn largely through play.
(Photo: Sarah Carr)

“It is absolutely not testing the way we think of testing in what we call ‘big kids’ school, where we sit you down and you take a math test,” said Karri Kerns of Louisiana’s Agenda for Children, which is helping a group of New Orleans centers adapt to the new accountability. “It’s not like that at all.”

For the littlest learners, Kerns says, testing really means careful observation to make sure they are reaching developmental milestones, like being able to hold a crayon, retell a story, or respond to emotional cues.

State officials are still hashing out the details of who will do the testing and how the results will be used. But they know those results will come with consequences. Any program that serves children under the age of 5 and receives public funding will get a letter grade. Programs that get bad grades for too long will lose their funding.

“The state’s been really clear they do not want to be funding low-quality programs,” said Kerns.

Most states are starting to rate the quality of early childhood programs. They have a few different goals: One is to make sure as many students as possible are ready for kindergarten. Another is to force the weakest operators out of business. Louisiana is unusual, though, in requiring publicly funded programs to participate. It’s also unusual to base school letter grades at least partly on student outcomes.
The state faces some pretty big challenges in creating an accountability program. The first is figuring out exactly how this “testing” is going to work.

“You cannot go in as an outsider to a classroom, pull a three-year-old out of the classroom as a stranger and think that you are going to be able to test, if you will, the child,” said Kerns.

That’s why most experts agree that teachers are the ones who should be assessing the youngsters, regularly documenting their progress through notes and photographs. The tool the state has selected, known as Teaching Strategies Gold, calls for ongoing observation in key areas, including literacy, math, and physical skills. Experienced educators like Givens use every conversation to determine what children know, and where they need help.

During one recent exchange, for instance, Givens learned that Emory knew the colors blue and green, but not brown, which he mistook for gray.

“This is how we assess kids, having that conversation, talking to them asking them questions, not sitting them down and saying, ‘Tell me what color this is,’” she said.

There’s another wrinkle that adds to the complexity of this whole endeavor. If teachers do the observational testing, which makes the most sense, there’s a conflict of interest: They will have an incentive to show their kids are making progress since their jobs might depend on it. So part of a program’s letter grade might be based on independent monitoring of whether teachers are doing the evaluations right. Sort of like testing the testers.

“My hope is what we would be looking at is, is the teacher using the tool and using it with reliability?” said Kerns.

In some cases, that will mean asking teachers who are already underpaid and undertrained to do even more. Teachers at Head Start and school-based prekindergarten programs often earn competitive salaries. But at many of the city’s independent child care centers, they earn between $10 and $13 — if that — and benefits are rare.

Despite all these challenges, Kerns and others say they are happy the state is focusing more on the early years. And center leaders say they hope it will lead to increased professionalism — not to mention better pay — throughout the industry.

“People are beginning to understand what you’ve known for a long time, that ‘Oh my goodness, these early years are the most important years,’” said Kerns.

What pre-k testing means for the children themselves remains to be seen. Looked at one way, kids are becoming data points almost from birth, subjected to an endless battery of tests through high school graduation. But data can also be a valuable tool. When a child starts elementary school, imagine if the kindergarten teacher already has a file on students’ learning and better knows what they need. As testing continues to expand, it’s keeping an eye on the child behind the data that will make the difference.

Mallory Falk provided technical production.

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

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Sarah Carr is a senior editor for The Hechinger Report. She has written about education for the last 13 years, reporting on battles over school vouchers, efforts to educate China’s massive population of migrant children, and the explosion of charter schools in post-Katrina New Orleans. She is the author of Hope Against Hope, a nonfiction account of New Orleans schools post Hurricane-Katrina, which she reported with the support of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia University. Carr has contributed to the New York Times, the Daily Beast, Time, the Miami Herald, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, New Orleans public radio and numerous other media outlets. She has won several national awards, including from the Education Writers Association for her work at Hechinger. Carr is a graduate of Williams College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.