Kill This Test

When I was 4, I spent my days in the backyard, digging trenches, chasing lizards and playing with any number of my 10 brothers and sisters.

Had someone given me a literacy test, I surely would have failed. I was an unlettered preschooler.

No one tried to instruct me in reading until I showed up for first grade, where a Dominican nun taught me phonics. I paid attention for one reason: the sports pages.

When the San Francisco Giants played night games, my bedtime invariably arrived before the ninth inning. The best way to find out what happened — whether Willie Mays had hit another home run — was to read the morning paper.

Despite my toddling illiteracy and early lowbrow reading habits, I somehow eventually earned a degree in English from Princeton.

Looking back, I am tremendously grateful no one ever pulled me out of my backyard and tried to teach me the A-B-Cs as preparation for a federally mandated test.

That is one reason I believe congressional Democrats may do at least one good thing this year: Bills to reauthorize the Head Start program recently approved by House and Senate committees would terminate the mandatory testing President Bush has instituted for all 4- and 5-year olds in the program. This testing has a properly Orwellian name — "The National Reporting System" (NRS) — and deserves to die.

Enacted in 1965, Head Start funds public and private groups that run local centers which provide what the Head Start Bureau calls "comprehensive child development services" for preschoolers from poor families. In 1966, Head Start enrolled 733,000 children and spent $198.9 million. By 2005, enrollment had increased modestly to 906,993, but spending had rocketed to $6.8 billion.

In his first term, Bush embraced two ideas for Head Start. One was good, the other bad.

The good idea was to allow several states to take over from the federal government in managing local Head Start programs. (Congressional Democrats, joined by some Republicans, blocked this.)

The bad idea was to require testing of all enrolled 4- and 5-year olds. The goal, as the White House put it, was to "develop a new accountability system for Head Start to ensure that every center meets high standards in teaching children early literacy, language and mathematical skills."

Testing started in 2003.

One drawback of testing should have been obvious: It subtracted from the time a 4-year-old boy might have dedicated to whiffle ball — so somebody could sit him down with flashcards of the A-B-Cs.

We will never now how many memorable ballgames never happened because a compassionate conservative wanted federal "accountability" for a program that should not have been a federal responsibility in the first place.

A Government Accountability Office report published in 2005 pointed to another problem: the potential for cheating. Not by the kids, but by their teachers.

Precisely because preschoolers cannot read and write, the "accountability" test must be administered to them orally — and graded and reported to the government — by "assessors" who also happen to be teachers and administrators for the very Head Start grantees the test is supposed to hold "accountable."

"Assessors are very involved in the scoring of the NRS, yet the NRS is evaluating the grantees that employ them — thus, they are not independent," the GAO dryly concluded. "Assessors’ input and interpretations could make the grantee appear to accomplish its goals, whether it actually does or not."

Head Start, properly constituted, can play a valuable role. Obviously, not every one has the luck I had as a preschooler to have a father who earned a good income, a mother (who despite her medical degree) stayed home to nurture her own children, many brothers and sisters to play with, a backyard to play in, and many interesting things and conversations going on around me almost all the time. With all these advantages, it apparently didn’t matter that the first figures I mastered were the batting averages of baseball stars.

But the next time Republicans control the government, they should fight harder for the ancient principle of subsidiarity — especially when it comes to children. Young children are best nurtured by parents. If parents can’t do it, other family members should. If family members can’t, private charities should. If charities can’t, the local community should. If the local community can’t, there may be a role for state government.

That may be why the Framers of the Constitution did not give Uncle Sam, who is nobody’s blood relative, any power to care for 4-year-olds, let alone test their literacy.

Congressional Democrats may not know it, but stopping President Bush’s testing would help push the federal government, ever so slightly, back toward that nice, little functional box it came in.