The latest Race to the Top starts in pre-school

With $50 million at stake, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration is devising a program to assess pre-school programs and the readiness of kindergarten students to start school, the federal government’s latest emphasis in its competitive education grant program, Race to the Top.

“I think that’s important,” Malloy said of the assessments. “It will put us in a position where it would be more likely that students would be coming into a certain skill set.”


Gov. Dannel P. Malloy: A new focus on early education

If the state wins the grant, it would have have four years implement the program. Applications are due Oct. 19.

As a gubernatorial candidate last year, Malloy was highly critical when the state failed to win federal money in the first rounds of the Race to the Top competition, and he has promised to be more aggressive in winning the money this time around.

According to final guidelines released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education, the new round of funding is directed at better preparing young children to learn when they enter first grade. States applying must show they have a plan in place to do four things: rate the quality of preschool programs, assess students when they enter kindergarten, have statewide standards for preschools and have teachers with certain credentials in the classroom.

With the backing of Malloy, the legislature passed a law this year requiring all preschool teachers in publicly-funded programs to have at least an associates degree by 2015, and half will need a four-year degree.

This new emphasis on assessments is stirring concerns over the whether a consquence will be bringing the pressures of hight-stakes testing found in higher grades down to kindergarten classrooms.

“There is great resistance to ‘assessment,’ because it implies a movement away from sound early childhood development practice — that is, the abandonment of play,” said Janice Gruendel, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Children and Families.

Gruendel, who has a long background in advocating for early education, posted her comments on the U.S. DOE’s web site seeking public comments on the draft guidelines.

“What is essential is that this federal program stand strong on the requirement for age appropriate early assessment linked to the expectations of its kindergarten teachers for the knowledge, skills and behaviors expected of children when they enter,” she said.

Liz Donohue, the governor’s policy director and lead administrator on the grant application, and Acting Education Commmissioner George Coleman said they still are shaping what exactly this new assessment will measure of the 40,000 kindergarten students entering school each year, but there is no plan to make this a high-stakes test.

“The intention is not to use this to say kindergarteners can’t come to kindergarten if they don’t pass this assessment. It’s to use that information to fit their needs,” Coleman said.

“It’s intended to see where students are. To say every student is ready for kindergarten is just not the case. This will be used as a starting place for curriculum and instruction,” said Harriet Feldlaufer, the bureau chief of teaching and learning at the State Department of Education.

Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education, emphasized the same point in a conference call Tuesday afternoon with reporters.

“Winning states will also implement appropriate assessments to help teachers understand how children progress. It is absolutely critical for the early childhood workforce to be intentional and systematic in the process of understanding young children’s cognitive and non-cognitive domains,” Duncan said. Referring to standardized tests, he added, “We will never ask 3-year-olds to take ‘bubble tests.’ Of course that would just be ludicrous.”

Kindergarten teachers in Connecticut for the last five years have rated their students at the beginning of the year on three performance levels, but Feldlaufer said it is in need of an overhaul. A draft analysis of the surveys from last school year show almost one-quarter of students entering kindergarten are in need of a large degree of literacy and language instruction to catch up to their classmates.

Coleman said the results throughout the years have shown that students from lower-income households enter school the least ready.

“Having something already in place is a competitive advantage we have,” Coleman said.

Donohue said having a more structured assessment will help improve early education programs overall since too many children show up unprepared for first grade.

“If we aren’t measuring what works, then we will continue down the same path,” she said.