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Some Qu’s About Validating QRIS Using Learning Outcomes

Published:  July 11, 2011

Last Thursday we wrote about the use of kindergarten-entry assessments in the new Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge. According to the program’s proposed guidelines, states must use, or show a commitment to developing, a “Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System” (QRIS).

In our post, we briefly mentioned a section in the guidelines that raised a flag for us about how children’s learning outcomes might be used to determine the quality of early learning programs. Today, we’ll dig a little deeper into the language in the proposed guidelines.

Section C of the RTT-ELC proposed guidelines, “High Quality, Accountable Programs” says states must:

  • Develop and adopt a tiered quality rating and improvement system based on a common set of tiered programs standards;
  • Promote participation in the state’s tiered quality rating and improvement system;
  • Develop and implement a system for rating, monitoring and improving the quality of early learning and development programs participating in the tiered QRIS; and
  • Demonstrate the relationship between quality ratings and the learning outcomes of children served by early learning programs, by validating that the tiers in the state's tiered quality rating and improvement system accurately reflect differential levels of quality, are related to progress in learning and development and build toward school readiness.

It’s the last requirement that raises an eyebrow. There is no doubt it would be important and valuable to know how these systems correlate with children’s learning and school readiness. If quality ratings are designed to improve children’s chances for success in school, they should be accompanied by evidence showing that, for example, a child who attended a five-star childcare center for two years is having better success in kindergarten than a child who attended a two-star childcare center.

But how would that success be measured? There are no specific mentions of kindergarten-entry assessments in the section so it is a bit murky as to what the agencies want states to do. Are these guidelines leaving a crack in the door for states to use the entry-assessments to reward early learning programs, a move that could lead to a “high-stakes” situation that other sections of the competition are avoiding? Would these results eventually be used by states to pull back funding from “low-performing” preschool programs? Or is this specific section simply designed to be used for research purposes and to guide the design of more-improved systems over time?   

For those who are unfamiliar with these kinds of tiered quality rating and improvement systems, typically known as QRIS, here is some background. In the Early Education Initiative’s 2009 brief, “A Stimulus for Second-Generation QRIS,” author Christine Satkowski wrote:

QRIS is a market-based approach to improving quality in early childhood care and education. It often uses a simple three- or four-star rating to summarize information on quality in multiple domains, such as child/staff ratios and teacher credentials, and presents it in formats, such as interactive Web sites, that parents (the consumers) can easily access and understand. By raising parents' awareness about the importance of quality in early childhood care and education, and helping them identify quality providers, QRIS creates incentives for providers to improve their services.

These systems are about providing quality information to parents and improving early childhood learning environments. Children’s “learning outcomes” have not traditionally been a component of the rating scale. While the components and structure of QRISs vary from state to state, they have some commonalities:

  • Research-based indicators of quality in early childhood settings such as qualifications of staff, child-staff ratios, classroom activities, parental involvement and program administration;
  • Trained observers inspect programs regularly to determine whether they are meeting minimum quality standards;
  • Outreach to parents to inform them of and encourage them to review the tiered points or star system used to signify center quality;
  • Outreach and support to providers to ensure they are aware of resources available to help them reach high levels of quality; and
  • Technical assistance and financial incentives that focus on improving program quality provided, often including grants for professional development or increased childcare subsidies for highly rated providers.

Up to this point, there has been limited research on the effectiveness of quality rating systems as a strategy for improving childcare center quality. One study of Colorado’s QRIS by the RAND Corporation included children’s learning outcomes in its effort to determine the validity of the state’s rating system as a tool for improving childcare center quality. Researchers used a variety of multi-domain measures, pre-and-post tests, along with surveys from parents and teachers to provide a comprehensive picture of learning outcomes for a small sample of children. Is this type of validation study what the Departments want states to undertake? Or do they want something that connects individual children to particular centers?

Given that children’s experiences in preschool programs vary greatly it would be complicated to compare readiness levels across programs. Some programs are full-day while others are half-day. Attendance is not compulsory so children might miss multiple days or even weeks. Some programs are year-round others are not. Some children may attend a given program for two or three years in a row, while other children may only participate in the one-year pre-k program.

And thinking about the theme of continuous improvement woven through the guidelines, how would preschool programs know how their rising kindergartners performed?  Would the results inform the centers’ practices and early childhood teachers’ instruction in addition to informing instruction in the early grades? Recommendations for this kind data-sharing and collaboration between elementary schools and pre-kindergarten programs are missing from the guidelines.

If the federal agencies’ intention is for states to hold pre-kindergarten programs accountable for how children perform on its kindergarten-entry assessment, then policymakers will need much more research on valid and reliable assessments of young children in multiple domains and much more development of thoughtful plans for adding learning outcomes as a component of states’ QRIS. We hope the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services will provide a clearer vision in the final guidelines for Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge.

See our special page on the Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge for continuing coverage.

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