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Kindergartens told to test

United states

Bush's plans for four-year-olds have angered early-years staff. Stephen Phillips reports

Plans to put 908,000 four-year olds through a "battery" of assessments have been greeted with hostility by staff administering the latest tranche of President Bush's programme to roll out standardised tests across the US.

White House officials last week announced plans to extend the testing regime for five to 18-year-olds to infants attending the government's 16,000 free childcare facilities for America's neediest families.

These Head Start centres have hitherto mainly provided social and emotional support, with limited emphasis on education. A 2001 study of children at 40 sites found they typically knew just two letters of the alphabet on entering school.

But the Bush administration wants to use them as a way of catching at-risk youngsters early and give them an academic leg-up before starting kindergarten with wealthier, better-prepared peers.

Boosting pre-school youngsters' reading skills is also the pet project of the First Lady, Laura Bush, who has endorsed the literacy drive.

"This is necessary to ensure that every child is progressing the way they should," Windy Hill, chief of the Head Start bureau, told a Washington DC conference.

But experts said four was too young to test and the results would be meaningless.

Tom Drummond, co-ordinator of early childhood education at North Seattle community college, said the last time testing was tried in 1987, half the children "were too scared to even function", despite gentle coaxing from staff.

"Children need to be out where they can run, jump and laugh, ask questions and enquire - this shows a lack of understanding about early education."

Delegates at the conference also voiced concern that too much responsibility was being laid on teachers. "So far the sole emphasis of this effort has been on what classroom teachers do, nothing on what families do," said George Davis, a Head Start director from near Chicago, drawing rapturous applause.

Youngsters will begin sitting the literacy assessments this autumn, with follow-ups, to measure their reading progress, next spring.

* More than 200,000 teachers in Texas face a bleak retirement after the state's staff pension fund saw the value of its investments plunge by $16.2 billion (pound;10bn).

The staggering loss leaves a gaping hole in the funds earmarked for retired teachers, almost certainly ruling out increments to keep pace with inflation unless $720m (pound;444m) can be pumped into the scheme from state coffers.

The loss, compounded by reduced contributions from today's working teachers, also threatens retired teachers' health care as their insurance fund will be insolvent by 2005 unless fresh cash can be found.

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