Photo by Lethbridge College on Flickr.

The Public Charter School Board has proposed a new system for evaluating charter preschools, and some parents are up in arms. The system may not be perfect, but when the Board takes up the proposal on Monday it should vote to approve it.

Last month the Public Charter School Board (PCSB) unveiled a plan to rank charter schools serving young children according to a formula that includes assessments of literacy and math skills. Within days, a petition protesting the move had garnered over 200 signatures. The PCSB is scheduled to vote on the issue at its meeting on Monday, September 16th.

Some opponents of the proposal are laboring under the misconception that 3-year-olds will be filling in bubbles on standardized tests with Number 2 pencils. Others argue that the PCSB should give more weight to assessments of “social and emotional learning,” a category that includes skills like taking turns and controlling emotional outbursts.

Let’s start with a threshold question: why is the PCSB evaluating preschools at all? Other charter authorizers don’t do it. But that may be because no other authorizers have jurisdiction over preschools. DC is the only place in the nation where public charter preschools exist, and the PCSB feels it needs to monitor these programs to ensure that millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly.

The PCSB has applied its Performance Management Framework (PMF) to elementary and secondary charter schools for the past two years. Now it’s simply adjusting and extending the PMF to schools serving younger children. But partly because the PCSB is the canary in this particular mine, it’s getting a lot of flak for doing it.

Some view preschool as akin to daycare, a place where kids should be kept safe while their parents are otherwise occupied and maybe learn to play nicely with their peers. But research has pointed to high-quality preschool as the key to closing the achievement gap between rich and poor students. If kids start kindergarten a year or two below where they should be in terms of readiness to learn, they may never catch up.

Especially in the District, where the majority of 3rd-graders perform below grade level and the achievement gap stubbornly persists, ensuring the quality of early childhood education is vital. And ranking charter preschools can help parents find the schools that are doing it best.

Tests are observations

It’s important to bear in mind that the “tests” the PCSB is proposing to use have little resemblance to the standardized tests that older children take. While the format varies, they all consist of some kind of observation. The children aren’t even aware they’re being tested, says Jack McCarthy, CEO of the highly regarded AppleTree Early Learning Public Charter Schools. Some of the tests begin with the teacher saying, “Let’s play a game.”

A test of “receptive language,” McCarthy explains, might consist of the teacher showing a child a picture and saying, “Show me the bus.” To test “expressive language,” the teacher might say, “What’s this a picture of?” and look for the answer, “A bus.” A teacher administering a “math test” might ask a child to make a triangle with popsicle sticks.

Some assessments call on the teacher to review observations of a child made over the previous several weeks. Others bring in a principal or coach to observe how the teacher interacts with the class. And it’s the school that’s being rated by the PCSB, not the kids. Plus, the charter preschools are all using these tests already.

So the concern that children will be stressed by the tests seems misplaced. What about the objection that the PCSB is putting too much weight on reading and math skills and not enough on social and emotional learning (SEL)?

That charge has been leveled by, among others, Sam Chaltain, a DC education blogger and charter preschool parent. Chaltain initiated the petition, which to date has 280 signatures, asking the PCSB to change its evaluation formula.

The proposed PCSB formula not only places more weight on reading and math readiness than on SEL, it also makes testing the latter optional. If a preschool chooses to have SEL included, it counts for only 15% of its overall score, while literacy and math skills together count for 45%. If a school opts to omit SEL, literacy and math count for 60%. At the kindergarten level the optional SEL component decreases to 10%, and reading and math can count for as much as 80%. (Additional factors include attendance and re-enrollment rates.)

Too much weight on reading and math?

Opponents of the formula argue, reasonably enough, that this uneven weighting will lead schools to emphasize reading and math skills over SEL when in fact they’re all connected. Chaltain advocates a formula that would give equal weight to all three measures, while also factoring in things like creativity.

Those on the other side of the issue don’t disagree about the interconnectedness of SEL and academic skills. “It’s like asking, what do you need to create water, hydrogen or oxygen?” says McCarthy. “You need both. The same is true with school readiness.”

But while McCarthy and Sara Mead, a member of the PCSB, agree that SEL is just as important as reading and math, they say it’s harder to measure. Research shows that tests of literacy and math skills are better predictors of future success than currently available tests of SEL, Mead has said.

And determining whether a child has, for example, acquired the ability to resolve disputes by “using his words” is inherently a more subjective exercise than determining whether he’s learned his letters. Some charters may be unwilling to have their scores based partly on tests that are still considered unreliable.

Both McCarthy and Mead also point to another mandatory measure in the preschool formula, an observational test called CLASS, part of which measures how well a teacher is supporting a child’s social and emotional development.

McCarthy says that much of the SEL research is new, and that in time better measures are likely to emerge. Eventually, he predicts, the PCSB’s weighting will change.

“I look at this as a first step,” he says. “No one has done this yet.”

This appears to be one of those times when we shouldn’t allow the perfect to stand in the way of the pretty darn good. The preschool PMF has been almost three years in the making, and most charter preschool operators in the District were involved in its creation and support it.

And the CLASS assessment, which counts for 30% of the preschool score, is a measure of child-teacher interaction that should help to ensure a nurturing, stimulating environment and guard against the kind of rote drilling that opponents of the proposed formula fear. So let’s at least give the PCSB’s proposal a try before condemning it.