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How good is your child's preschool? A new test aims to give Floridians a better answer

Aiden Greenough, left, and Felicia Barrett celebrate graduation earlier this year from the VPK program at t
he Boys and Girls Club of Hernando County. Students at the Dr. Seuss-themed celebration sang songs about family, friends and moving on to kindergarten. This year, the state is rolling out a new test that measures how prepared VPK grads are for kindergarten. [Suzanne McClave]
Aiden Greenough, left, and Felicia Barrett celebrate graduation earlier this year from the VPK program at t
he Boys and Girls Club of Hernando County. Students at the Dr. Seuss-themed celebration sang songs about family, friends and moving on to kindergarten. This year, the state is rolling out a new test that measures how prepared VPK grads are for kindergarten. [Suzanne McClave]
Published Sep. 8, 2017

How good is your child's preschool? Does it prepare kids for kindergarten like it should? Should it continue to receive state money?

Since 2014, it's been harder for parents and the public to tell, thanks to flaws in a state test, begun that year, that was supposed to measure the performance of schools that get money under the state's Voluntary Prekindergarten Education Program, known as VPK. State officials say they suspended the test because of "technological issues," leaving Florida without an accurate measure of kindergarten readiness.

But that is changing as schools across the state begin administering a new, more accurate test to thousands of 5-year-olds as they settle into their kindergarten classrooms this year.

As with the previous test, the STAR Early Literacy test is designed to assess whether each kindergarten student possesses the skills he or she will need in the coming year — for example, how well they recognize sounds, letters and numbers. The results also are used to determine whether the prekindergarten programs those students attended should continue to receive state VPK funds.

Under Florida law, all kindergarten students must be screened within the first 30 days of school. The 20-minute, online assessment can be completed on a laptop or tablet.

The situation has left the future of some prekindergarten programs in doubt because the test that was in place before 2014 is still considered valid and will be included in each school's track record. The pre-2014 results will likely be paired with those from this month's testing.

Programs that did well under that old test won't have a problem, but those that had low success rates could lose state funding.

Those in the latter group "have essentially been put on hold," said Rodney MacKinnon, executive director of the Office of Early Learning, which oversees early learning and school readiness in districts throughout Florida.

"It's not just like it has been the wild west for the past four years," he added. "There have been standards in place, we've just been unable to implement this particular part of the program."

Under the previous test, three consecutive years of kindergarten readiness rates below 70 percent meant a five-year penalty of no state funding. The State Board of Education is expected to revisit those benchmarks this fall.

In the Tampa Bay area, Hillsborough County has about a dozen VPK providers out of 445 that had low rates in 2012 and 2011. Pinellas has five, and Pasco and Hernando counties don't have any low performing VPKs still open.

As for the new test, just over 15 percent of almost 16,500 kindergarten students in Hillsborough County have taken the assessment since the school year began. Lisa Black, the district's kindergarten supervisor, said most students use computer labs to complete the test.

"What we thought would be a bump in the road with the technology, so far the kids have really risen to the occasion," Black said.

She said she noticed a slight dip in the reading readiness of incoming kindergarten students over the past three years, but wasn't sure if that was tied to the pause in accountability among VPK providers. In addition to private preschool programs, the district operates its own VPK programs in many of its schools.

"I definitely think that the fact that we are going to have an assessment will help make us more accountable," Black said. "I know that we have not in any way let our guard down."

The Pinellas County school district asked kindergarten teachers to hold off on giving tests until Aug. 28 so they would have a chance to get to know their students and establish classroom procedures and routines. They also wanted to give students time to practice on the device they would use for the test, since some of them may not know how to use a laptop.

"A few (teachers) were anxious and jumped on it right away when the 28th got here," said Gail Ramsdell, the Pinellas school district's early childhood specialist. "A lot have kind of been taking that advice and making sure some kids were prepared."

The data from the new tests won't be compiled and ready for public view until this spring, and will count retroactively for the VPK programs' 2016-17 school year.

Much of that data will be collected and reviewed by early learning coalitions that oversee VPK providers in designated counties.

The Early Learning Coalition of Pinellas holds training for preschool teachers geared toward the standards covered in the kindergarten readiness tests, said executive director Lindsay Carson. The training also touches on how teachers can respond to behavior problems, be aware of their students' social and emotional development, and help introduce STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.

She said the coalition works with preschools with low scores to develop ways to help at-risk kids who are already behind. For many students, especially those in high-needs areas, Carson said VPK may be their first brush with education and literacy.

"The school district experiences some of the same challenges that our private providers do," she said.

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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