RALEIGH — Pre-kindergarten education is a growth industry across the United States, and North Carolina is no exception. But before policymakers can understand whether pre-K programs are worthwhile, effective, wasteful, or absolutely essential, it makes sense to figure out what deficit they are supposed to correct.

State governments are getting into the pre-K business on an unprecedented scale. A 2003 Education Commission of the States report acknowledged that 43 states fund pre-K at some level. North Carolina’s high-profile More at Four program received $6.5 million in annual funding over the 2001-03 period. If the program is expanded along the lines that Gov. Mike Easley has proposed, it will increase spending to a minimum of $32 million over five years, and is certain to be higher unless costs remain absolutely fixed.

And, of course, North Carolina already spends about $200 million annually on the Smart Start program and millions more on child-care subsidies matched by federal grants.

The ages of children involved in state-funded pre-K programs range from infants to 4-year-olds, depending on the state. Likewise, the programs vary from full-day to part-day, and some piggyback on existing public-school facilities. Private centers also pick up a portion of state-funded pre-K business. Not necessarily a low-cost route, costs of state-authorized pre-K classes often rival or exceed the costs of private- school options. With so much activity and so many dollars flowing into this undertaking, significant questions remain about who we are serving, and why.

Assessing the young child

Many early-childhood/pre-K assessment tests are marketed, and most look at a similar list of skills. One of the most widely used tests to identify potentially at-risk children is known as the Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning test 3, or DIAL 3.

The process starts with testing 4-year-old candidates. Four-year-olds are not ready for pencil-and-paper tests, so early-childhood test makers design task-oriented test items. Children demonstrate understanding through physical and oral responses to the tester’s questions and commands.

Most pre-K testing also involves surveys or questionnaires that are completed by the adults who deal with the child.

The DIAL 3 is a screening tool that is administered either in Spanish or in English. It must be given by an individual trained in observation and scoring methods. Pre-kindergarten teachers often receive the DIAL 3 training, since they are responsible for writing the individualized educational plan for a child with a disability.

The test has five components. The gross and fine-motor skills test requires children to hop, catch, cut out, copy, or build with blocks, while the tester observes attention span, direction-following, frustration tolerance, and other reactions. Children answer verbal questions about themselves and other familiar topics. They may be asked to identify rhymes, or name or identify objects. Concept recognition applies to knowledge of colors, shapes, and counting. Developmental-skills tests involve tasks such as dressing, eating, and grooming, and social development is observed in interaction with others. Issues such as empathy and self-control are noted as part of the test.

The Education Commission of the States, on its Pre-Kindergarten information site, defines the school readiness criteria as “Children must be ready to make the transition from home or child care to formal education.” What does this mean?

Aside from stating that children must have “appropriate skills,” be “ready to succeed,” and “curious,” no specific skills, or lack of skills, have been delineated. According to ECS, “A child’s approach to learning is viewed by many experts as the most important element to measure,” and “Readiness tests should not be used to determine whether or not a child will gain admittance to school.”

Numerical scores on tests such as the DIAL give us the only guidance we have in looking for risk factors, if we ignore income. The ECS talks about nebulous attitude goals. The most specific ECS criteria call for judgements about curiosity, motivation, and other hard-to-pinpoint concepts.

Even more pre-K at four

Assessment has a bearing on who participates in North Carolina’s early-childhood programs, including the high-profile More at Four. The program was intended to serve 4-year-olds from low-income families. The original language of the law identified these low-income children as “at-risk” for academic failure.

The 2002-03 Information Package for County Planning Committees on the More at Four Pre-Kindergarten Program states, “There are an estimated 40,000 plus at-risk four-year-olds in North Carolina based on poverty criteria, with approximately 10,000 of those at-risk children currently unserved.” “Even more are considered underserved,” it reads. The estimated cost of $6,000 to $8,000 per child would bring total spending for the unserved population to $32 million at least.

But “at risk” is no longer limited to low income, making the target population harder to identify. According to several reports in The Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer of Raleigh, More at Four pre-K slots were going unfilled in various locations. More at Four employees were reported, in some cases, to be searching out children by going from door to door. Reports gathered by the North Carolina Education Alliance confirm that this does happen in some locales.

Despite the newspaper reports, the North Carolina Education Alliance was unable to confirm significant vacancies in the prekindergarten program. In interviews conducted during November across eight centers, directors reported that seats were filled, or had one or very few vacancies. In some cases, participants had moved or dropped out of the program for other reasons.

Most centers did not have waiting lists, but all were searching out potential clients through social services, police, schools, and other quasi-governmental agencies. Are they that hard to find? Followup interviews in February indicated that few vacancies go unfilled in any case.

Four-year-olds in peril

The vagueness of child assessment is not unique to North Carolina. According to the Education Commission of the States, while implementation of the various state-funded pre-K programs is varied, all look for generally “at risk” children. “Most states target programs for children who have identified risk factors such as poverty, low parental eduction, teen-age parents, and English as a second language.”

In actual assessment situations, North Carolina is selecting children for participation based upon factors that include, but are not dictated by, income.

Responding to inquiries from Carolina Journal, the director of an eastern North Carolina More at Four program acknowledged that most of the children in her classes were not from low-income families. Factors used to select 4-year-olds include income, she said, but also include parent education, eligibility for other social services, siblings enrolled in other state programs, and frequent illness or chronic health conditions, such as asthma. The No. 1 reason for a 4-year-old to be accepted into that program was diagnosis, or suspicion of, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Diagnosis of ADHD could be the result of prior medical examination, or might be flagged as a possible problem in the pre-kindergarten assessment process.

Even though low income is the most widely recognized marker for identifying an at-risk child, a substantial number of participants in the North Carolina pre-K initiative are admitted on much more general or ambiguous grounds.

Limits to state-sponsored pre-K

The governor’s office advertises the need to serve 40,000 unserved, and 10,000 underserved, low-income, preschool children with pre-K. Despite an assessment process, boundaries for the “at-risk” population could now encompass most 4-year-olds in the state. For families who don’t need intervention, programs such as More at Four subsidize parents who can afford to pay for services elsewhere. Families without resource options will still have to fend for themselves, once spaces are filled.

Thus some lawmakers and others question the need for a huge state pre-kindergarten program. The idea that most children suffer scholastically without pre-kindergarten has little scientific basis. While popular, state-funded pre-K on a massive scale is probably not scholastically necessary nor fiscally prudent.

A more sound approach to state-sponsored pre-kindergarten would require all families to income-qualify, using resources where they are most urgently needed.

Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.