Most States Use Useless Preschool Ratings, Study Finds

Published September 13, 2013

Twenty-six states rate preschools with a system that doesn’t identify quality institutions, finds a recent study in Science journal.

The Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) is the most widespread preschool rating system, and it has been spreading as states increase government preschool subsidies. Researchers, however, find QRIS doesn’t actually tell whether a particular preschool benefits kids. “The QRIS is being rolled out really quickly and there is not a lot of empirical evidence on its effectiveness,” said lead author Terri Sabol.

The authors of “Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?” determined QRIS’s lack of outcome measures, coupled with too many indicators, produce essentially useless ratings.

Sabol found similar results when examining preschool ratings in Virginia in a previous study, and so decided to examine QRIS as well.

“This is a really significant piece of research because right now we’re considering the national universal preschool program and Race to the Top has already entailed millions of dollars [for preschool],” said Lisa Snell, Reason Foundation’s director of education and child welfare. “Every state has raced to replicate this.”

Measuring Inputs, Not Outcomes
The authors studied data from the early 2000s to determine whether QRIS adequately measured how much preschoolers learn. QRIS has a five-star rating system.

“Basically, we took the indicators that states are using, replicated the scoring system, and then we aggregated the scores together and converted to program ratings,” Sabol said. “Then we created a generic system that included the CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System) program.”

The authors found QRIS labels some high-quality programs ineffective because it uses bad criteria for quality.

Private, homeschool, and other alternative establishments that provide excellent preschool offerings may be rated much lower under QRIS than they should be, Snell said.

“We’re not measuring outcomes, we’re measuring inputs, and then we’re making systems to validate those inputs,” Snell said. “If you have low teacher-child ratios and high credentialing, that’s what we’re going to invest in.”

Although other, lesser-known systems exist, such as the Childhood Environmental Rating Scale, QRIS has had the biggest impact nationwide, affecting policy and funding, all without proof that children benefit from preschools highly rated under the QRIS standard or any rating systems.

QRIS criteria focus on inputs such as teacher credentialing, service hours, and similar measurements, which research shows have no significant impact on learning, said Vicki Alger, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.

A Market-Based Approach
Research shows parents of all income levels look for lots of different things in early childhood programs, Alger said.

“Parents want nurturing care providers, safety, and cleanliness, and parents want convenience because of a growing number of mothers working in the labor force who are looking for high-quality care,” she said.

QRIS has become an attractive, universal standard that makes parents feel secure about their choice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow for the variety of needs parents express when choosing childcare.

Even so, QRIS is an important first step in providing parents with a market-based approach to choosing preschools, Alger said.

“Any sort of measure is going to start to break down under a certain amount of scrutiny,” Alger said. “[QRIS] is filling a void, a place where parents can go in and start asking questions. Parents are the ultimate arbiters. [QRIS] is meant to be a guide. Parents have to build on it and make the right decision for their individual child.”

Measuring Outcomes
More outcome-based measures are necessary to improve preschool rating systems, Sabol said.

“When these systems were created there was a lack of empirical evidence,” Sabol said. “States, with the best intentions, wanted a set of indicators. As more and more researchers are getting involved we can try to figure out empirically what the key to quality actually is.”

Large-scale studies of preschool and high-quality datasets already in existence could suggest new methods of rating, Snell said.

“There are not as many barriers [compared to K-12 settings],” Snell said. “It’s easier to get consent from parents, and there is quite a lot of public information and philanthropic dollars and national datasets studying these kids.”

Key to Quality: Teachers
The top measure of quality researchers are currently aware of is teacher quality, both in preschool and K-12, Sabol said. Although teacher quality is the most important and widely recognized measure for student success, it is still a politically sensitive matter, Alger noted.

“How we’re looking at education versus care is another thing we have to separate out,” Alger said. “We should have measures that assess what parents are most interested in. It may just be that children are happy, healthy, and safe for 36 hours a week. Once we start throwing in the educational components, we need stricter, more meaningful measures.”

An improved system would include initial and follow-up diagnostics, percentile rankings for motor skills, and other indicators of learning, Alger said.

“There is a lot of potential for QRIS,” Sabol said. “Directly observing classrooms and then providing information to parents and options for improvement could have a great impact.”


Learn more:
“Can Rating Pre-K Programs Predict Children’s Learning?” Science, August 2013:

“Preschool Quality Can Be Measured, but States Aren’t Getting It Right,” Daniel K. Willingham:


Image by Kevin Colwell.