ATLANTA - Four years after Georgia began its popular pre-kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds, officials are getting mixed reviews on the $211 million program's effectiveness.
Georgia State University researchers found low-income students from the first class of pre-kindergarten children got an initial boost, but some of the gains may fade.
And state Department of Education records show only minimal improvements on the tests 100,000 Georgia kindergarten students take each year to see if they are ready for first grade.
State School Superintendent Linda Schrenko expressed shock over the lack of substantial gains on kindergarten tests.
"It tells me one of two things: Either the 4-year-old pre-kindergarten program is not going to affect student achievement, or the curriculum and what they are doing is not what it should be and should be made more rigorous," the superintendent said.
However, supporters say pre-kindergarten has improved one crucial indicator of future academic performance: fewer of the students that go through the program are being held back in first grade because they are unprepared to advance.
"First grade is where we have the greatest level of retentions. Those that can avoid being retained really have a leg up on their academic careers," said Gary T. Henry, director of Georgia State University's Applied Research Center and the Council for School Performance.
Researchers say it's too early to get a good read on whether the 60,000 Georgia 4-year-olds attending the lottery-funded pre-kindergarten program each year will get a significant academic boost.
Gov. Zell Miller used the pre-kindergarten program and HOPE college scholarships to coax Georgia voters into approving a state lottery in 1992.
Both projects have been wildly popular, and both were expanded as lottery revenues swelled.
The pre-kindergarten program was initially designated for "at-risk" children - those from poor families - but has since grown to let all four-year-olds qualify.
Early-childhood development researchers at Georgia State have been tracking 500 poor children from the class of 1993 through this year, when the youngsters will finish 2nd grade.
In kindergarten, the researchers found, the pre-K grads did better on a standard scale used to measure academic and social development. The former preschool students also had 26 percent fewer absences and were promoted to first grade at higher rates than the other students.
By first grade, the pre-school grads were still missing fewer days, but their teachers saw no differences between the groups of children, rating them about equal academically and socially.
Part of the study group took the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in first grade, with little difference showing up in the scores those who had pre-K and those who did not.
Savannah-Chatham County Superintendent Patrick Russo said his district has tracked a similar class of local pre-kindergarten graduates for three years.
"We found the performance rate was higher and the retention rate was lower," Mr. Russo said. "There is definitely substance to the program."
That has been in question ever since pre-K was introduced. Critics have contended it is nothing more than baby-sitting, a charge Mr. Miller has angrily denied.
Mrs. Schrenko said there has been an improvement of less than 1 percent on the kindergarten test over the past four years, not enough to warrant calling the pre-kindergarten program an academic success.
Even before pre-K was introduced, more than 90 percent of kindergarten children were passing the test of minimal competency.
Mr. Henry said the kindergarten test is not a good measure of how pre-kindergarten students are doing because so many children were already passing the exam - a point Mrs. Schrenko disputes.
"Over time, with a four-year-old pre-K program ... a higher percentage should be ready for first grade," the superintendent said. "If you look at the whole test, from 1992 to 1996, we have gained nothing."
Mrs. Schrenko called the test the only "nonbiased" assessment available to date, because the first class of pre-K graduates has not yet completed 3rd grade, when students take the full battery of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.
"You cannot ask a parent receiving free day care, `Do you like this program?' Nor can you ask a teacher who is getting paid by the program," the superintendent said. "What they say is one thing, what is on the test is another."
Indeed, a study released by the state-supported Council for School Performance last fall showed strong parental support for the program.
But Mr. Henry said researchers also have found pre-kindergarten parents and elementary school teachers are increasing their expectations of children who take part in the program, another indicator of future academic success.
Mr. Henry and Mike Vollmer, director of the state Office of School Readiness, hope to resolve questions about the program by tracking 4,000 students at 220 pre-kindergarten sites this year throughout their academic careers.
"We want to see just how good or bad this program is," Mr. Vollmer said. "We felt like since we've opened it up to everyone, we should have a long-term review."
That study will follow the children well into the 21st century.
Because Georgia is one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, lottery revenue may have a hard time keeping pace with pre-kindergarten needs.
Mr. Russo estimates he could fill another 30 pre-K classes in Savannah if the state came up with the money.
"At one site, I had 60 to 70 parents lined up at 5 in the morning waiting to sign their kids up," he said.
But Mrs. Schrenko says the state needs to find out whether the program is producing better students, and if not, make some serious changes.
"Are we leading our parents to believe by going to four-year-old and five-year-old programs that their children are going to be better-prepared for school?" she asked. "I have no way of knowing whether it works or not other than how our children do in the kindergarten-12th grade levels."