Ask any public school parent—including me—about what happens when your child is in the earliest elementary grades, and you may get an earful about what is missing from their classroom experiences.
Our current school accountability policies encourage school leaders to invest in grades that are tested, leaving the leftovers for the early, untested grades. In some schools, it’s an open secret that administrators assign weaker teachers to untested grades. Everywhere, it’s no secret, just logical, that resource-strapped schools direct what they have to tested grades so their school does well on tests and looks good to the general public.
In our case, that meant that last year, my child’s first-grade class of 30 students, mostly English-language learners, had a third-year teacher and no aide. With the exception of kindergarten, aides went to tested grades. We had a lovely year in many ways, but I’m still trying to determine whether my child got the math and reading instruction she really needed to maintain the academic progress she made in preschool and kindergarten.
Who Says Early Grades Aren’t Important
Unfortunately, while No Child Left Behind brought important transparency and push for improvement to schools and districts, its focus on grades 3-8 reinforced a long-standing mindset: early grades aren’t as important for academics as the later grades.
But as policymakers pay greater attention to the research on the effects of high-quality preschool, researchers are beginning to examine whether lower-quality early elementary experiences may partially explain why preschool gains appear to fade out by third grade.
Pushing testing lower won’t solve the problem. Young children aren’t ready for the kinds of standardized tests older children take, and the tools we do have to measure their progress aren’t reliable for judging overall school performance.
New Ways to Hold Schools Accountable
But the Every Student Succeeds Act offers new opportunities to hold schools accountable for their work with early elementary students without relying on testing, says the early education advocacy group The Ounce of Prevention Fund. Last week, senior vice president of advocacy and policy Elliot Regenstein explained the possibilities to journalists at an Education Writers Association seminar on the new federal law.
While it would be great in an ideal world to see early childhood observational assessments like the CLASS move up into the early elementary grades, “it’s generations away,” Regenstein predicts.
Instead, states could use the newly required, non-test-related “indicator of school quality or student success” to refocus district and school leaders on K-2. How? By picking a non-tested indicator that we know means something for long-term student success—like chronic absenteeism or use of exclusionary discipline—and weighting that measure more heavily in the early grades. We know that children who miss a lot of school, especially early in their student lives, are more likely to struggle later, as do children who are frequently suspended.
Encouraging district and school leaders to look more closely at how students fare before third grade could even encourage them to partner with or create their own preschool programs. “Early childhood education could be the answer for many low-performing elementary schools,” says Regenstein.
New language in the law makes it clearer to schools that Title I money can be used to support preschool programs, and new accountability measures could encourage them to build stronger bridges between preschool and elementary school.