Research has found that high-quality pre-K programs can have positive impacts on children’s learning and development, improving outcomes like literacy and math skills in the short-term and even increasing employment and educational attainment in the long-term. Policymakers have leaned heavily on this evidence to argue for increased investments in early learning. Yet studies following children across elementary school have also found that the positive effects of pre-K on academic and cognitive skills can dissipate fairly quickly. This pattern across studies—commonly described as the “fadeout” or “convergence” of pre-K impacts—has received renewed attention in light of a new study finding that children assigned to Tennessee’s state pre-K program were actually performing worse on standardized tests and had more behavioral infractions in sixth grade, compared to children assigned to a waitlist control group. These findings have renewed the debate about the value of universal pre-K and the need for continued investments in early learning.

Often overlooked in understanding the “fadeout” phenomenon, however, are the types of children’s skills that are being measured by the assessments commonly used in these studies, such as the Woodcock Johnson or DIBELS. Most such assessments measure foundational academic competencies like letter and number knowledge, which are skills that all young children in the United States are expected to master in the early grades. It is not surprising then that children who do not attend pre-K typically catch up to their pre-K-attending peers on these outcomes. However, if these studies used assessments that captured a broader set of skills that children are less likely to quickly develop in kindergarten, policymakers would get more complete information on whether and how early learning investments pay off in the long term. To build better evidence on the impacts of pre-K, it is critical to strengthen existing assessments used for monitoring, research, and evaluation and to capture more robust information on children’s development across time. Here’s how:

  • Assess a more comprehensive set of children’s skills in pre-K and kindergarten. 
  • Reduce the burden of collecting assessments of children’s skills.
  • Invest in data infrastructure to capture information across pre-K and elementary school.

Building better evidence on the long-term impacts of early learning requires expanding the range of children’s skills that are assessed, making that data collection feasible and scalable, and strengthening data systems to support continued evidence-building over time. Engaging in this work will yield broader knowledge to build better early learning programs and support the well-being of our youngest citizens.

Read the full article about improving evidence for early learning programs by Meghan McCormick at MDRC.