University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

ABC Pre-K Students Outperform Peers

In The View from the OEP on January 20, 2021 at 11:30 am

New research out of OEP examines the relationship between students who attend Arkansas’ ABC pre-K programs and later academic outcomes. We find positive, statistically significant relationships between ABC participation and 3rd grade math and reading achievement in three of our four cohorts, but also that the relationship diminishes by the time students are in 5th grade.

The Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) program was launched in 1991, and legislation passed in 2003 outlined specific guidelines and requirements for pre-K programs serving students with ABC funding. ABC educators are required to have bachelor’s degrees and current AR teacher licenses. These are considered rigorous standards compared to many public and private pre-K centers. The ABC program meets eight of ten quality standards set by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

ABC programs primarily serve students at risk for low academic performance. Families with combined household incomes less than or equal to 200% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free tuition and priority enrollment. Students can also qualify for eligibility if they have other risk factors, including disabilities, developmental delays, or limited English proficiency. When there are additional spots in ABC classrooms unfilled by qualifying students, other children in the community can enroll and pay tuition on an income-based sliding scale. 

The new study from OEP describes the 3rd and 5th grade outcomes of students who enroll in ABC pre-K programs in Arkansas public schools. Our research isn’t causal, because students are not randomly assigned to ABC participation. In an attempt to understand how well these programs are serving students, we follow four cohorts of program participants through elementary school, and we compare their math and reading achievement test scores to those of similar peers who did not attend ABC programs.

You can read the full paper or the policy brief for more details, but here are the highlights:

  • Approximately 25% of each Kindergarten class for each of the four analytic samples attended an ABC pre-K program
  • ABC pre-K participants are more likely to fall into demographic groups that are considered at-risk for low academic performance: approximately 75% of ABC participants qualify for Free or Reduced Price lunch when they start Kindergarten
  • ABC students outperform similar peers on math and reading achievement tests in 3rd grade in three of four cohorts. After controlling for student-level demographic characteristics, there are positive, statistically significant relationships between ABC participation and 3rd grade math and reading achievement for three out of four cohorts of students
  • Relationships between ABC participation and 5th grade achievement are smaller in magnitude than those of 3rd grade and largely not statistically significant. The lack of significant findings in 5th grade is largely the result of declines in average z-scores for ABC participants since 3rd grade.

As Arkansas strives to improve academic outcomes for students, particularly the percentage of students reading on grade level by 3rd grade, positive results associated with ABC pre-K participation should be of particular interest to policymakers and advocates. The lack of significant findings in 5th grade math is largely the result of declines in average z-scores for ABC participants since 3rd grade. Our findings suggest that high-quality pre-K education may be a critical tool for ensuring all students have the opportunity to succeed. While ABC participants score demonstrably higher than similar peers on standardized tests in early elementary school, there are likely even more program benefits for these students. Prior pre-K research demonstrates that these programs can lead to positive social and behavioral outcomes in addition to academic and cognitive benefits (Gorey, 2001). Getting an additional year or two to learn classroom rules and procedures, socialize with peers, and adapt to the school routine should equip students with behavioral and social skills that will help them succeed in Kindergarten and beyond. Arkansas educators and policymakers have an opportunity to ensure that the benefits of high-quality pre-K endure into higher grade levels, and that all students are consistently provided the opportunity to learn and achieve their goals.

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