Washington preschool program for low-income kids pays dividends in higher test scores in elementary school, state study finds

The state’s investment in preschools for low-income kids appears to be paying off in improved elementary school test scores, according to a state report released this month.

The report says that children who participate in Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program go on to earn higher test scores in math and reading in elementary school, when compared with their peers from similar economic backgrounds who didn’t enroll in ECEAP.

The report, from the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, was commissioned by the Legislature in 2013.

It compared the test scores of elementary school kids who attended ECEAP as preschoolers with those of other low-income children who weren’t in the program. The result: The passing rate on state fifth-grade reading tests in 2013 was estimated to be 7 percent higher for ECEAP kids. In math, their scores were estimated to be 6 percent higher.

The study also found significantly higher math and reading test scores for ECEAP alumni in third and fourth grade.

“These kids are outperforming their peers five or six years after their last participation in ECEAP,” Department of Early Learning director Bette Hyde said in a news release. “This appears to dispel the myth of fadeout, or diminishing impact of early learning on a student.”

ECEAP was established by the Legislature in 1985 to provide instruction, family support and health and nutrition services to low-income preschoolers. ECEAP programs are located across the state, operated by local school districts and community agencies. Children are eligible if their family income is at or below 110 percent of the federal poverty level ($26,235 for a family of four), or if they live in homes with other risk factors such as family violence or substance abuse. They must be at least 3 years old, but younger than 5, by Aug. 31 of the school year that they enroll.

To analyze the effect of ECEAP, the state study identified a group of children born between September 1999 and August 2004 who received Basic Food (food stamp) benefits when they were age 3 or 4, and who subsequently enrolled in Washington public schools. They looked at children who attended ECEAP and those who did not to make their comparison.

Data for the study came from the state Department of Social and Health Services, the Department of Early Learning and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In each data set, specific information that could identify an individual child was removed. Instead, researchers assigned unique codes to allow data from the three sources to be merged for analysis.

Researchers found a significant positive effect of ECEAP on elementary grade test scores — an effect they said is almost twice as large as those found in studies of preschool programs in other states. They also said measurement of longer term effects — for example, high school graduation rates — won’t be possible until after 2020, when all the children included in the analysis are expected to graduate from high school.

The state budgeted more than $136 million for ECEAP programs in the 2013-15 biennium. But there are more applicants than spaces. As of May 2013, there were more than 3,700 children on ECEAP waiting lists.

Hyde said the state has committed to funding ECEAP to make it available to all eligible children by the 2018-19 school year.