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Study: Washington State Preschool Program Delivers Academic Advantage

A new study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy showed clear test score gains in late elementary school for children who attended the state preschool program there.

Washington's state preschool program is relatively small, enrolling only 8,022 students, 2 percent of the state's 3-year-olds and 8 percent of its 4-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education. Though the state ranks low for enrollment, it spends a lot per student and meets nine out of 10 of the institute's quality benchmarks.

Our own Quality Counts preschool index ranks Washington state 47th in the nation based on data from eight indicators.

But the recent study indicates that students who do enroll in Washington's preschool program benefit academically as late as 3rd, 4th and 5th grade. As measured by scores on state standardized tests, 5th graders who had been enrolled in the preschool program scored an average of 7 percentage points higher in reading and 6 percentage points higher in math than similar low-income students.

Since the study looked back at data from children who had already enrolled, or not, in the state program, it was impossible to randomize who attended preschool and who didn't. Study authors did control for similarity between those who attended and those who didn't, however.

The authors note that many in the comparison group also qualified for Head Start and may have attended that program.

"Therefore, the results of this analysis describe the effect of [Washington State preschool] compared to the average experience of other similar 3- and 4-year-olds rather than the effect of [Washington State preschool] compared to children who received no government-funded preschool," report authors wrote in the Outcome Evaluation of Washington State's Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.

The Washington legislature ordered the study during its 2013 session as a precursor to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee's proposal to add nearly $80 million to the program in the next two-year budget cycle, according to a report by the AP. The additional funds would make space for about another 6,400 children, according to the AP story.

These findings could belie concerns about "fade-out," the finding that children who attend preschool do better than their similar peers initially, but that the academic benefits "fade out" by 5th grade. Since the data available did not include children older than age 11, the study was not able to draw conclusions about high school graduation rates.

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