Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?

This new report, published in the August 2013 issue of Science magazine, looks at Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRISs)—attempting to determine if these pre-K evaluation systems actually lead to improved educational outcomes for students. This is important as QRISs are proliferating rapidly across the country. Ohio has a QRIS system in place (“Step Up to Quality”), managed by the Office of Job and Family Services, which gives pre-K school providers a rating of one to five stars. The rating system is based primarily on “input measures” such as staff to child ratios, pre-K staff qualifications and professional development, and other factors.

But do highly-rated QRIS preschools relate to better learning outcomes at the end of pre-school? The study raises concerns. The researchers used data sets from two previous studies: one conducted by the National Center for Early Development and Learning and the other from the State-Wide Early Education Programs (SWEEP) study. Overall, the data set for this study included 2,419 children in 673 public pre-K programs in 11 states including Ohio. These studies were chosen for their similarity to the data collected by current QRISs, which are being used in nearly half the states in the U.S.

The study finds that an omitted variable—a measure of the quality of teacher-student interactions called CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System)—is the strongest predictor of children’s learning. This data was studied previously but is not currently included in any QRISs, a major finding and a major flaw in QRISs.

This research is particularly timely as Columbus seeks to invest more public funds in pre-K (1 mill of the levy request is for expanded pre-K). In Washington DC, a new framework for evaluating pre-K programs in the city’s charter schools was approved just last month despite strong parental protest. Officials involved in the creation and implementation of the new evaluation note that the quality of teachers’ interactions with preschool students accounts for 30 percent of the preschool rating in the new framework, as well as considering social and emotional development. Columbus should also evaluate which of its preschools are truly high-quality and worthy of investment (and not necessarily rely on the state’s flawed QRIS system). It is important to collect, review, process, and publicize data to help parents make excellent choices. But the data must be complete and the ratings must focus on student outcomes, as much as possible.

SOURCE: T.J. Sabol, et al., “Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?” Science 23 (2013): 845-846.

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