JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A new report from a legislative watchdog agency questions how education officials are running a program to fund preschool classes for some Mississippi 4-year-olds, and says students in those classes performed worse in 2014 than students in other prekindergarten classes taught by public school districts.
The Mississippi Department of Education, though, sharply questions the findings by the Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review in the report released Wednesday.
Mississippi has spent almost $9 million over the past three years to fund 11 early-learning collaboratives — groups of school districts, private preschools and Head Start programs that work together with the aim of widening access to preschool in various areas. The 11 groups served about 1,600 students during the 2014-2015 school year, their first full year of operation.
The hope is that the programs would help more students be ready for kindergarten, and supporters are pushing lawmakers to spend more money to expand the program in the upcoming legislative session.
But the report finds students attending the program were 6 percent less likely to meet the state's target score for kindergarten readiness than students who attended other prekindergartens run by public schools.
That finding brought an angry response from education officials, who had already jousted this year with PEER over the committee's report questioning how Mississippi grades its public school districts and individual schools. State Superintendent Carey Wright, in a statement Wednesday, said the report doesn't meet education research standards.
"Any inferences about the Early Learning Collaborative effectiveness articulated in this report should be disregarded," Wright said.
PEER defended its report.
"To evaluate the operations and effectiveness of the prekindergarten program, PEER's staff need not be experts in the standards for educational evaluation," the committee wrote. "Rather, PEER's staff must have the skills necessary to conduct an objective review."
PEER also criticized the department for failing to tie funding to minimum score levels. The law calls for withholding money from schools and childcare centers that don't meet minimum benchmarks.
"PEER contends that the minimum rate of readiness should have been set in program planning, as it would have been a more objective measurement of performance expectations," the committee wrote. "Setting the rate after test results are available increases the opportunity to use the test results to set the rate, regardless of the actual performance expectations."
The department, though, says it was too soon to establish that benchmark before giving a kindergarten readiness assessment to a wide group.
"Accepted practice in education is to establish a baseline of scores on any assessment used for accountability purposes prior to setting accountability requirements," Wright wrote in an Oct. 7 response letter.
The committee said the department broke the law by not reporting test scores for every provider, instead only reporting scores by the larger collaboratives.
PEER also criticized the department for allowing collaboratives to choose preschool curriculums that haven't been proven to work by multiple independent studies, claiming that's what's required by law.
Online: PEER Report: http://bit.ly/1lQsFGC
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