This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English Education Report.
Four-year-old children in Head Start programs throughout the United States are taking a test. This test is meant to show if Head Start is succeeding in its goal. The goal is to make sure children from poor families are as prepared to begin school as other children.
The four-year-olds are being tested for their ability to recognize simple words and letters in the alphabet. They are also being tested for their skills with numbers. Federal education officials say the test will help the Head Start program improve. The officials will compare the performance of the children against national averages in early arithmetic, reading and writing.
Head Start began almost forty years ago. The children are between the ages of three and five. They receive free preparation for their first year in school. Some spend half a day in Head Start, others a full day. Still others take part in a program of home visits.
Local non-profit organizations operate the programs. The government spends more than six-and-a-half thousand-million dollars a year to pay for Head Start.
Wade Horn leads the Head Start program for the government. Mister Horn says the test is designed to learn which kinds of programs help children the most.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services released a report on Head Start in June. The agency compared Head Start children with children from average, middle-income families. It said the Head Start children are not as ready for school as the others. But some educators criticize the idea that one year in Head Start could raise poor children to average levels. Some also criticize parts of the test. For example, critics noted that the children are asked to point to a picture of a "swamp." They say a lot of children, especially from cities, might not know that a swamp is a wetland area with grass.
Still, even some educators who oppose the test agree with federal officials that Head Start needs to do better to prepare children for school. Currently, local programs decide what they want to teach. Many have placed major importance on health, nutrition and social development. In recent years, federal managers of Head Start have been telling programs to place more importance on basic skills needed for school.
This VOA Special English Education Report was written by Jerilyn Watson. This is Steve Ember.