The Head Start National Reporting System: A Critique

Initiated in the fall of 2003, a high-stakes achievement test is being administered to all four and five-year-olds in Head Start. Two times a year, 35,000 teachers or surrogates will administer the 15- to 20-minute test to more than a half-million children, at a cost in excess of $16 million. The purpose of the test, as described by the Head Start Bureau, is threefold: (1) to enhance local aggregation of child outcome data and local program self-assessment efforts; (2) to enable the Head Start Bureau and Administration for Children and Families (ACE) Regional Offices to plan training and technical assistance efforts; and (3) to incorporate child outcome information into future Head Start program monitoring reviews. Never before in the history of this nation have so many young children been exposed to a standardized achievement test. Unfortunately, this test, called the National Reporting System (NRS), includes items that are rife with class prejudice and are developmentally inappropriate. This is particularly troubling because the test is used by Head Start officials as a quality assurance system. In fact, the idea that a narrow test of young children’s skills in literacy and math can represent a quality indicator of a holistic program like Head Start shows a stunning lack of appreciation for the comprehensive goals of the 38-year-old program. Moreover, program quality cannot be evaluated by student outcomes alone, since this approach does not take into account differences among children and programs.

Initiated in the fall of 2003, a high-stakes achievement test is being administered to all four and five-year-olds in Head Start. Two times a year, 35,000 teachers or surrogates will administer the 15- to 20-minute test to more than a half-million children, at a cost in excess of $16 million. The purpose of the test, as described by the Head Start Bureau, is threefold: (1) to enhance local aggregation of child outcome data and local program self-assessment efforts; (2) to enable the Head Start Bureau and Administration for Children and Families (ACE) Regional Offices to plan training and technical assistance efforts; and (3) to incorporate child outcome information into future Head Start program monitoring reviews. Never before in the history of this nation have so many young children been exposed to a standardized achievement test. Unfortunately, this test, called the National Reporting System (NRS), includes items that are rife with class prejudice and are developmentally inappropriate. This is particularly troubling because the test is used by Head Start officials as a quality assurance system. In fact, the idea that a narrow test of young children’s skills in literacy and math can represent a quality indicator of a holistic program like Head Start shows a stunning lack of appreciation for the comprehensive goals of the 38-year-old program. Moreover, program quality cannot be evaluated by student outcomes alone, since this approach does not take into account differences among children and programs.

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