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Colorado’s low grade on early education report questioned

Colorado earned a D and ranked 44th out of 50 states on a report card measuring early education in Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report. But one expert says the report’s “Early Education Index” doesn’t consider a set of indicators comprehensive enough to make the letter grades fair and accurate.

“If you look at the big picture of everything that’s going on in the [early childhood] space….it’s not a good way to grade the states,” said Bruce Atchison, executive director of policy and operations for the Education Commission of the States. “It’s just a little shallow to me.”

Overall, the top-ranked jurisdictions on the Early Education Index were the District of Columbia, Hawaii and Mississippi. The bottom three were Nevada, Idaho and Utah. The nation as a whole earned a D+ on the index.

“To say Colorado is doing worse than Mississippi or Wyoming, that’s absurd…Wyoming doesn’t put anything into Pre-K yet,” Atchison said.

He also said the index doesn’t consider Colorado’s work to improve child care quality, licensing and professional development. Also unacknowledged are governance changes that created the state’s Office of Early Childhood, legislation requiring kindergarten entry assessments, and the progress being made by the state’s network of early childhood councils.

“I would give Colorado a B- or C+ absolutely,” Atchison said.

A better approximation of how Colorado is doing on the early childhood front is the annual “State of Preschool Report” from the National Institute for Early Education Research. Atchison said. The 2013 report, the latest available, doesn’t give letter grades, but generally gives Colorado middle-of-the pack rankings when it comes to preschool access and spending. For example, the state ranked 22nd on four-year-old preschool access and 32nd on all reported (not just state) spending.

Among the eight indicators included in the Quality Counts’ Early Education Index, Colorado did particularly poorly on those measuring the number of children in full-day preschool (31.2 percent) or full-day kindergarten (59.7 percent) programs, ranking behind all but a handful of other states. It also scored poorly in the “preschool poverty gap” category, which measures the difference between the percentage of poor and non-poor children enrolled in preschool. In Colorado, that gap is 19.4 percentage points, among the highest in the nation.

The index does contain few bright spots for Colorado. The state posted one of the highest gains in preschool enrollment over the last five years—3 percent compared to the national average of -.3 percent. Its overall preschool enrollment rate of 48.8 percent is also relatively high, earning it a ranking of 16th nationally.

One caveat mentioned by Education Week officials about the Early Education Index is that it’s based on federal surveys that asked families to self-report educational information. It does not include actual enrollment figures collected by states, school districts or programs.

On a separate section of Quality Counts focusing more on the K-12 system, Colorado earned a C and ranked 21st in the nation. That grade, the same as the national average, was based on K-12 achievement, school finance measures, and a third indicator called “Chance for success,” which includes early childhood, K-12 and adult outcomes. Colorado earned a B on Chance for Success, a C on K-12 achievement and a D+ on finance.