How Should We Assess Schools?

Since basic education in the early years is now recognized as crucial, it is important to measure quality in preschool education. In the US, states are beginning to use market-based approach rating systems to assess preschool programs. One example is the Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS). This is relatively new so only a relatively few number of studies have evaluated QRIS. Under QRIS, a program is evaluated based on quality standards which include the following:

  • qualifications of teachers and caregivers
  • pupil:teacher ratio (class size)
  • quality of the learning environment or facility
  • involvement of parents

These standards seem reasonable. These are all expected to be essential for effective learning. A possible dilemma, however, exists. The standards above may just be the required inputs for educating a child, thus, only prescribing what is minimally required for a high quality preschool education. In other words this may be similar to using availability of textbooks as a way of assessing quality in schools. Whether pupils are provided learning materials or not is really not a measure of quality. Such standard can not be expected as a good yardstick to discriminate programs. Such standard does not really identify what sets apart a high quality preschool program from the rest.

A recent report in the journal Science, "Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?", demonstrates that the standards enumerated above do not perform well in predicting learning outcomes in early childhood education. These certainly highlight the concern that the standards chosen simply pertain to necessary inputs for learning, and not the true factors behind the learning process. The following figure from the Science paper suggests what may be missing:

"On most measures of children’s learning, programs rated high by QRIS produce outcomes that are not significantly better than those of low-rated programs. Stars indicate a statistically signifi cant difference in math, prereading, expressive language, and social skills (*P < 0.05, **P < 0.01, ***P < 0.001)." Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children's Learning? T. J. Sabol, S. L. Soliday Hong, R. C. Pianta, and M. R.  Science 23 August 2013: 341 (6148), 845-846.[DOI:10.1126/science.1233517]

In addition to "staff quality", "ratio and group size", "family partnership", and "environment" (the common QRIS measures), an additional criterion is presented: Interactions. "Interactions" comes from a different scoring system called Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS). This system measures the following:

  • emotional support
  • classroom organization
  • instructional support
It is clear that the numbers for these measures require direct observation of the classroom, hence, are not as easy to obtain as faculty's degrees or training, classroom size and facilities. One actually has to spend time to see how a teacher is interacting with a pupil to arrive at a handle of the above measures. But, as the figure above shows, it is the only one that correlates with student achievement.