VOICES: Is universal preschool the answer to falling test scores?

Ohio students are falling behind. The National Assessment of Educational Progress NAEP report shows math proficiency rates for Ohio’s 8th graders are at 29%, and reading proficiency rates are at 33%, a significant decrease from 2019′s scores. Even worse, students from low-income districts averaged scores less than half of those from higher-income districts. The state report card showed similar issues with early literacy scores of 1-2 stars out of 5 in 34% of districts, indicating a need for state support. The statewide average for 3rd-grade reading proficiency is only 59.8%. According to Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee, this means 40% of 3rd graders are not on track and could be held back. Lawmakers and administrators are scrambling to find the answer to improve Ohio test scores. Could it be access to high-quality preschool for Ohio students?

A NIEERS report showed that attending a quality preschool could reduce the achievement gap by 41% in reading and 27% in math for low-income students. However, less than 54.9% of Ohio’s 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool. As an early childhood educator, I have seen the kindergarten readiness tests shift, expecting more from young children. Gone are the times when we learned our alphabet, colors, shapes, and numbers in kindergarten. Children are now expected to enter kindergarten knowing these and to have skills such as sharing, turn-taking, tying shoes, and name-writing. Some children can learn these skills at home, while others learn them in preschool. Nevertheless, what about the 45.1% of children in Ohio who are not in preschool? Can Ohio afford to continue letting our children — our future employees and employers — continue to fall behind?

Providing an opportunity for all 3- and 4-year-olds in Ohio to access high-quality preschool will require funding. However, it is already happening in multiple states which fund it in various ways. Some use the K-12 funding formula, while others use lottery funds, sports betting taxes, tobacco taxes, and federal expansion grants. The funding is there, and the cost-to-benefit ratio supports universal preschool. A study from the UpJohn Institute found that for every $1 spent, the gain for the community was $1.84.

Some may question: how can we expand preschool access in Ohio? We can look to local programs like Preschool Promise, which have been working to offer affordable preschool in Southwest Ohio. Others may ask: who will say what is high-quality and ensure quality is maintained? Fortunately, we already have Ohio’s Step Up to Quality program.

Not only is universal preschool feasible in Ohio, but there are many benefits to implementing this policy. When universal preschool was implemented in the District of Columbia, researchers found that the number of mothers who entered the workforce increased by 12%. Imagine how much families would benefit from the added income of another person entering the workforce. A review of research on the economic effects of access to high-quality preschool has found a reduction in future crime and public assistance, increases in elementary test scores, high school graduation, and work productivity in students who attended such programs.

With test scores currently falling in the state, it is time to shift our focus to providing children with the best opportunities, starting with universal preschool. We can’t afford not to.

Tiffany Berman is an early childhood educator and a doctoral student in the educational studies program at the University of Cincinnati.

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