Getting ahead without really trying 

One common misconception about spiders is that they have 25 legs. This month, one Head Start educator is dispelling this and other arachnoid myths with plastic spider replicas, songs and picture books. For the first time, some of Missoula’s smaller people will learn that spiders march on eight. Also this November, the 4-year-olds among them will take the first standardized test of their academic careers.

Ann Marie Johnson, Head Start coordinator, is proctoring 200 exams child by child. The new federal requirement tests vocabulary, letter recognition and math. To demonstrate, Johnson opens a binder to four small sketches of water. Which body of water, she asks, is the swamp? They all look like swamps, but the 4-year-olds, she says, point unequivocally to the “right” answer.

Though the toddlers may be able to determine a junior artist’s rendition of “swamp,” both Johnson and Missoula Head Start Director Scot Anderson have reservations about the exam and the testing process. First of all, the test is not scientifically validated, says Anderson. Secondly, he can’t ensure accurate scoring because the exams are mailed off to a national company. He isn’t even sure whether he will see the final individual results, and performance standards remain undefined anyway. But Anderson does know the benefit of the test to parents: “There’s virtually none.”

Families in Plains evidently agree—all have refused to have their children tested.

Shelley Waters Boots of the Children’s Defense Fund seems hard pressed to see benefits, too. “Most of the developmental experts will tell you this is an inappropriate standardized test for 4-year-olds,” she says. “This is not the right way to do quality assessment.”

In fact, Head Start already assesses children for a wide range of skills: motor, social and cognitive. The new test, though, focuses solely on academics, because research shows that Head Start preschoolers fall short compared to the average—50th percentile—preschooler.

Does that mean Head Start isn’t doing its job of bringing preschoolers up to snuff? Anderson is skeptical. He sees progress. Data show that over the course of the program, Head Starters move from the 20th to the 30th percentile, he says. “I don’t know that there is a preschool program in the country that is capable of moving kids from, say, the 20th percentile to the 50th,” he says.

Anderson says there’s an “implied threat” that if the kids do not perform, funds will shrink—certainly not good news to the roughly 350 Missoula families served. Half are single parents and 90 percent fall at or below the federal poverty level. Statewide, Head Start serves about 4,000 children.

Coordinator Johnson says she was kind of hoping the kids would fail this month; their spring scores would look rosy in comparison. Alas, the children are doing well.

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