Federal preschools test 4-year-olds' preparedness for starting kindergartenLast in a four part series

His name is Christian. It has nine letters. Letters make sounds. Let's sound it out. Chr-is-ti-an.

In a Warrenton preschool, teachers use names as tickets to the literacy train.

"We start with their names because it makes sense to them," teacher Vicki Githaiga said. "For it to be meaningful for a child, it has to make sense."

In the federal preschool program Head LORI ASSA -The Daily Astorian

Suited up with his helmet, 4-year-old Chase Osborne takes off, as teacher's helper Amber Thwing helps Christian Johnson with his helmet.Start, the locomotive makes several quality assurance stops along the journey to the town of kindergarten - at least three times a year in Oregon and Washington.

Sister legislation to the sweeping education reform "No Child Left Behind" requires a couple more. President George Bush's early childhood initiative, "Good Start, Grow Smart" of 2002, mandates standardized testing in autumn and spring when there were only observational assessments before.

Goals for head startDuring the 1999 reform of the federal preschool program Head Start, Congress mandated learning standards for literacy, language and math.

Standards set the following goals for Head Start children:

• Develop awareness of print, sounds of letters and numbers.

• Understand and use language to communicate for various purposes with increasingly complex and varied vocabulary.

• Demonstrate an appreciation of books.

• Know the letters of the alphabet is a special category of visual graphics that can be individually named.

• Identify at least 10 letters of the alphabet.

• Recognize a word as a unit of print.

• Associate sounds with written words.

• English language learners progress toward English fluency.

Source: Early Childhood Initiative "Good Start, Grow Smart" The National Reporting System will study Head Start's effectiveness based on children's ability to solve picture problems that assess math and literacy. This fall, Head Start programs are scrambling to complete testing of all 4- and 5-year-olds who will enter kindergarten next September.

Githaiga said the standards indicate lawmakers are more interested now than in the past 16 years she's been a Head Start teacher.

"I think that they've finally really recognized that early education is really an important part of life," she said.

Many educators believe it draws on goals set by Congress during the program's last re-authorization in 1998. (See Goals.) The plans grew from an education summit led by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. By the year 2000, all children would start school ready to learn.

"We know that strong cognitive development is critical to help children learn when they arrive at school," U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said. "The little things, like reading and talking with a child, do matter. Neglecting to prepare children for their academic careers endangers their prospects for success in school."

Pushing academicsLORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

Chase Osborne uses a paper towel to turn off the water after washing his hands for lunch. Personal hygiene is part of the education in Githaiga's classroom.Lisa Wallace has been practicing on her husband as she prepares to give Head Start assessments next week. Testers have been trained to present the test exactly the same way to every child by flipping through a notebook and showing the child pictures.

"Words of encouragement are built into the test," Wallace said. "I'm not going to smile, and I'm not going to wave and prompt."

As Clatsop County Head Start manager, Wallace has noticed a shift in emphasis during the decade she's worked for the program.

"When I came into Head Start, there was this social-emotional push," she said.

At the time, educators believed children who played well with others would learn well in school later. Academics has become the "push." Too much emphasis can be dangerous because children develop at different speed, Wallace said.

Head Start began in 1965 as a program to give low-income children a boost before entering kindergarten. A family of four must have a yearly income of less than $18,400 to qualify for Head Start. The program has expanded to 915,000 children in more than 1,500 programs nationwide. Some 90 children attend Head Start in Clatsop County.

LORI ASSA - The Daily Astorian

Vicki Githaiga, a Head Start teacher of 16 years, instructs the class to dish up lunch. Sitting together, from left, are Nathan Bellware, Ashley Howes and Jewleia Ahching.Some educators worry the tests may discredit Head Start and lead to penalties for low-performing programs as in the public school system under No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001, reformed federal education programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. The law stipulates that 100 percent of children in grades three through 10 will perform at grade level on standardized tests in reading and math.

Schools face stiff penalties if they receive federal funds for poor students and do not progress toward the goal. In the past, low-performing Head Starts have been closed.

Like No Child Left Behind, Head Start requires teachers earn advanced degrees, which could become more advanced with a re-authorization this year.

The assessment may not be used divisively, said Joyce Ervin, who coordinates Head Start in Clatsop, Columbia and Tillamook counties.

ON THE NETSeveral Web sites include information about education reforms.

Oregon Department of Education

(www.ode.state.or.us)

U.S. Department of Education

(www.nochildleftbehind.gov)

Head Start

(www.headstartinfo.org )

Good Start Grow Smart initiative

(www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/earlychild hood/sect5.html)

Head Start Professional Organization

(www.nhsa.org). "Right now, to me, they're gathering data," she said. "I'm not sure what the expectancy will be."

Some, like West Virginia attorney Reed Martin, believe No Child Left Behind will work by buoying children when they are very young.

"The incredible strength of this act is that we aren't going to let any child slip," said Martin, who represents special education children and their families. "What No Child Left Behind looks at is really getting down early, early, early and really getting kids reading as they enter first grade."

In the familyThe children still grow in the context of their families, said Elizabeth Hadley, who coordinates preschool for Washington's Pacific and Wahkiakum counties.

"If they're hungry, they won't learn. If they can't see the blackboard, they won't learn. If mom and dad are beating each other up and smoking a crack pipe, there are going to be other factors getting in the way of their ability to learn."

Other areas of the child's well-being - like the ability to play with others, learn personal hygiene and take rests - might be ignored as lawmakers focus on academics, Hadley said.

"They only seem interested in: How many letters can they recognize? How many numbers can they count?" she said.

Congress mandated Head Start children should start school ready to learn. While many children start school knowing the entire alphabet, a Head Start study revealed children often know between seven and nine letters. Those same students started Head Start knowing between four and three letters, respectively.

With eight unrepeated letters, Christian Johnson already knows a third of the alphabet.

In the world of standardized learning Christian could already have an advantage over Chase Osborne. Chase's name only has five letters. So Chase only has an affinity with five letters while Christian has eight unrepeated letters that he will see written on every single picture on his refrigerator. But then again, Christian is only 3.

At 4, Chase enunciates a little better than Christian when they discuss their telephone conversations with the Green Goblin, a character from the comic SpiderMan.

Several factors play into a child's preparedness for education. One parents may read aloud more frequently, which is shown to improve the child's learning ability. One parent may be more educated - another factor in the child's development. One may encourage learning games or require educational television or include the child in chores or partner in parenting with a mother or a father.

Circle TimeIn Githaiga's classroom, children are learning how to sit in a circle and share toys. They are also learning how to brush their teeth and set the table. Three-year-old Christian didn't quite hear his teacher call the students to "Circle Time" on Thursday.

Source: Oregon Department of Education

Max Charlton - The Daily Astorian

For the last few years, lawmakers have been assessing the readiness of kindergartners as they enter school. Above is the percent of children who met readiness criteria in several areas for 2002. Clatsop County had a higher percentage of children ready in all six areas than the state average.

He was too engrossed in a conversation with the Green Goblin, who apparently had called with an urgent message.

Teachers assess children as they develop for kindergarten. They study the child's imagination and ability to play and his ability to listen and follow directions. At 4, a child's knowledge often varies daily so Githaiga keeps a running tally of her students. Three times a year, Githaiga compiles her student reports in the Oregon Assessment.

The Oregon Department of Education has been studying children as they begin kindergarten ready to learn.

In 2002, Clatsop County children perform at or above state averages in all six areas studied: Physical well-being, language usage, approach to learning, cognition and general knowledge, motor development and social and emotional development. Nearly 81 percent of Clatsop County children entering kindergarten were ready in all six areas, compared to 76 percent statewide.

Head Start children had an advantage in kindergarten, said Jeanne Sigurdson, who taught kindergarten for more than a decade before recently switching to second grade at John Jacob Astor Elementary.

"It just gives those kids just that boost and that extra sparkle," she said. "They just come better equipped to learn. ... You wonder what they would be like if they didn't have it."

Tio SimonThe standard Head Start assessment begins with a game of "Simon says," which evaluates a child's grasp of English. The test is also available in Spanish, but no other language. In Clatsop County, most students speak English or Spanish, but in other programs children speak several languages.

A Seattle Head Start employee, Jane Davies, said her students speak Vietnamese and African languages. Davies' program at First African Methodist Episcopal was field tested in the assessment this spring. Some 36 programs and 1,400 children participated nationwide. FAME tested about 40 children, which went relatively smoothly. The children had all year to build up their attention spans. Even then, one child simply sat through the test. Another didn't want to play "Simon says."

This fall, Davies worries the students may not be able to concentrate throughout the test.

"We've got some children who have never been in a classroom before," she said. "We are going to have children who are not going to be able to sit still for 15 minutes. Their attention span is about 7 minutes."

The test also includes picture identifications, a math portion with graphs and simple story problems and a letter recognition portion. Wallace will fill in the bubbles based on a child's responses.

Source: Head Start Family and Child Experience Survey

Max Charlton - The Daily Astorian

In 1998, Congress mandated Head Start work toward the goal of having all students know 10 letters as they leave the program. Here are the numbers of letters students know as they enter Head Start in the fall and leave in the spring.

Many Head Start educators believe the test was put together quickly, without enough review by educators, Wallace said. U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D- New Mexico introduced a bill in September to stall the testing for further review, but the bill is still in committee.

Counting to 10Head Start programs, which operate through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will not receive information about the performance of each child. But, as a whole, test results will be reviewed. Wallace said the standard test is too rigid for her to glean information from anyway.

"I wouldn't use this for classroom assessment," she said. "It's standardized. It's more like a drill. It's not used in their environment."

Christian was not thinking about counting to 10 or his ABCs when his grandmother picked him up from classes Thursday. The 3-year-old was desperate to ride the bus.

"Look at my eyes," he said, taking his grandma Ellen Steimfeldt's face in his tiny palms. "I wanna ride the bus."

As quietly as he spoke during his playtime, Christian spoke clearly enough for his teacher and an aide to hear his pleas. One would scarcely guess that Christian's brother Ethan Johnson, 4, begged his family to stay with him the previous year. This year, the boy bounded off to class and had to come back to say good-bye to his grandmother.

"I think children are individuals and they're all at their own level," Steimfeldt said. "That's more important to me than how far they can count."

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