LJWorld.com weblogs First Bell

Head Start impact; testing costs


As surprising as this may seem, there actually are a few things being written and talked about in the world of education that have nothing to do with gun control or the wisdom of placing armed security guards in every school. So with the holidays here, I thought it might be useful to pass along a short list of the latest reports, studies and news tidbits that are making some waves right now.

• The first is a new report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggesting that most, if not all, of the benefits a child receives through the federally funded Head Start program are short lived and almost disappear by the time the child is in third grade.

Head Start began in 1965 during the LBJ-era War on Poverty. Although it's mainly known as a preschool program targeting low-income communities, it also provides medical, dental and mental health care; nutrition services; and efforts to help parents foster their child’s development.

Eligibility for Head Start is based on family income. Nationwide, about 1 million children ages 3 to 4 are served by Head Start. The federal government spends about $8 billion a year. State governments and local communities chip in more, but advocates for the program say there are many more children eligible than there are slots available.

The study was actually the third in a series of reports that Congress mandated when it reauthorized Head Start in 1998. The first examined its measurable impact by the time a child enters kindergarten. The second looked at the lasting impact through first grade. And now the latest report, released this month, tracks the impact through third grade.

All of the studies were based on large samples of about 5,000 children who were eligible for Head Start. They were divided into two groups: those who participated in Head Start and those who participated on other preschool programs or no program at all.

The results seem to indicate that while Head Start does a good job in preparing kids for kindergarten, the benefits quickly start fading away after that.

That raises serious questions about the need to continue funding the program, at least in its current form, especially given the tight budget constraints facing state and federal governments.

Aside from the funding issue, though, it also raises interesting research questions about how to make it more effective — either by changing Head Start or by changing K-3 education so the benefits of Head Start are not lost.

• A second interesting field of study concerns how much states like Kansas are spending each year administering those standardized tests that schools give each year.

This subject was mentioned briefly in a recent Legislative Post Audit report about the cost of implementing the Common Core State Standards in reading and math, which noted that Kansas stands to save as much as $3 million a year in testing costs by taking part in a multistate consortium that is developing a common test that can be used in all 45 states that have adopted those standards.

That was confirmed, to some degree, by a study from the Brookings Institution that looked at testing costs in 45 states, and it offers a few interesting facts about the costs in Kansas in particular.

The good news is that Kansas already has one of the lowest-cost testing programs in the nation, something in which the state can take pride.

The bad news: Kansas already has one of the lowest-cost testing programs in the nation, meaning there may not be much savings to be had there, at least not in comparison with other states.

According to the report, Kansas spends about $11 per-pupil to administer the mandated reading and math tests each year. That's second only to New York State, which can spread its costs across a wider population, and just slightly ahead of North Carolina.

Interestingly, Kansas and North Carolina are the two states that contract out with public universities to design their tests. Kansas contracts with the Center for Educational Testing and Evaluation at Kansas University.

The report by Brookings fellow Matthew M. Chingos does note that the Kansas tests consist entirely of multiple-choice questions, which does lower the time and cost involved in grading them. It also notes there is not necessarily any relationship between how much a state spends on testing and the quality of the tests it administers.

But it is interesting to look through the tables and see how other states manage their tests, and how much many of them pay to private companies for designing and managing the testing process. From a cost standpoint, at least, Kansas has been doing pretty well.


Phil Minkin 5 years, 4 months ago

There is far more to Head Start than than test scores. As the article mentions there are "medical, dental and mental health care; nutrition services; and efforts to help parents foster their child’s development." In Lawrence each child is provide with dental care, if needed, as well as complete medical exams and screening and evaluation for cognitive development, For many kids from low income families, this is their first opportunity to be in structured environment so they can better fit in when they go to kindergarten. For many of these kids the 2 meals they receive at Head Start may be most of the nutrition they get in a day. It is also more than just for kids, there is a great deal of parent training and providing parents access to resources in the community. I worked at Head Start here for 33 years and have seen how our program changed lives for many, many families.

chootspa 5 years, 4 months ago

The study didn't measure Head Start vs parental care. It measured Head Start vs parents choosing their own care. In the control group, 60% of the parents placed the children in some sort of preschool.

It could be that these kids need more services - extended school year, after school services, etc. After all, Head Start is only two years. It could be that preschool really doesn't make as much difference for kids as a quality k-5 school, or that the deficits of a poor quality k-5 will erode all the gains from preschool.

But whatever the true reasons for the findings, the result will be that conservatives will see it as yet another excuse to cut services to the poor.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.