SEATTLE – A new study shows low-income children from Washington state who go to a state-supported preschool are likely to do better academically than their peers, at least through fifth grade.
Researchers found the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program has a positive impact on third-, fourth- and fifth-grade test scores, which were given five or six years after the students were in preschool.
Kids who attended state-funded preschool when they were 3 and 4 years old had a 7 percent higher passing rate on the fifth-grade reading test and a 6 percent higher passing rate on the fifth-grade math test when compared to tests taken by children who were eligible for the preschool program but did not attend.
Department of Early Learning Director Bette Hyde said the results are significant because they show the academic value of preschool continues for years after entering elementary school.
“This appears to dispel the myth of fade-out, or diminishing impact of early learning,” Hyde said.
The study requested by the 2013 Legislature was conducted by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
The Legislature requested the answer to a bunch of other questions, which the researchers said they did not have enough data to answer.
For example, the children who were studied were born between September 1999 and August 2004, so researchers won’t know for a few more years if these same children have better high school graduation rates than their peers.
They also did not have enough data to compare the effectiveness of the program with other programs such as Head Start. They could not report on the effects of preschool on social and emotional learning, but may be able to in the future when more data are available from the state’s pre-kindergarten assessment.
The study does not reach the gold standard of academic research since children were not assigned randomly to a preschool or control group. But researchers believe they got close to that standard by looking only at children who were eligible for the program and comparing those who attended with those who did not.
Both groups of children are from families with an annual income at or below 110 percent of the federal poverty level or $26,235 for a family of four, or qualify for special education services or other factors that make them eligible for the preschool program.
Mark Ginsberg, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, called the results impressive.
Ginsberg said he was impressed that the improvement in test scores seems to grow over time, showing that high-quality preschool gives kids what he called a “glide path” to succeed in school. He noted that not every preschool would have the same impact; quality is essential.
Washington’s quality rating system for preschools gave all schools that are part of its Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program a rating of four or five out of five.
Hyde said he would like to see state researchers take a closer look at some of the other questions asked by lawmakers, and so would Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“The design of the Washington program leads you to believe that it has broader effects,” Barnett said. He said the results made him curious about the social impacts of the preschool program and whether results would be different for children who attended one year of preschool and those who attended two.
He called the study credible and positive but cautioned against drawing fine-grained conclusions about how the program compares to preschool programs in other states.
The National Institute for Early Education Research has given Washington’s early childhood education program mixed grades because so few children have had the opportunity to participate. About 2,000 kids currently participate.
Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed adding nearly $80 million to the program in the next two-year budget cycle, which would make space for about another 6,400 children. He wants to put $70.5 million into the preschool quality rating system, which has spent its federal grant money.