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Study: Measuring Quality a Challenge in Early-Childhood Rating Systems

The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Grants, which were awarded to 20 states in 2011-13, encouraged winners to invest in a quality rating system for early-childhood programs—and even states that didn't get win the grant money went along with the program, says a report from Regional Educational Laboratory-Midwest.

But in adopting these rating systems, states are struggling with how to create reliable ratings at a sustainable cost, the REL-Midwest report said.

REL-Midwest examined how the Race to the Top competition shifted the early-childhood landscape in the seven states that are a part of its region: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Quality rating and improvement systems are seen as an important way to improve preschools and to provide information to parents. Now present in all but one state, these systems generally provide an easy-to-understand rating system for families to use to rank early-childhood programs, often with one star denoting basic quality and five stars denoting the highest quality.

States use factors such as direct observation of teacher and child interactions and data on health and safety to create the star ratings. 

But each state has a slightly different way of rating its programs, as the REL-Midwest report describes. 

For example, some states only conduct direct observations of providers that are looking for top ratings, because conducting those direct observations are expensive. Those states may also only send observers to a sample of classrooms.

"States really do want that five-star rating to be meaningful and to represent the highest quality that's available in their state," said Ann-Marie Faria, a principal researcher and one of the report's authors, in an interview. "The direct observations are very important, and states are very committed to them, but they're very costly." 

If states are using different standards for awarding stars, it raises questions about the validity and reliability of the rating system. The report suggests that states hold off on tying financial benefits or other high-stakes decisions to star-rating systems until the reliability issues are ironed out. 

"Otherwise, states risk spending money on financial incentives that may fail to promote provider quality or child development," the report says. 

Related stories:

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