How Does the Quality of Your Preschool Compare to Other Providers in Your State?

Parents should know that their state may be rating the quality of their preschool or child care provider. Systems to rate the quality of child care and preschool programs (QRIS, or Quality Rating and Improvement Systems) are in place or under development in 49 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. There are two important facts to keep in mind:

  1. Preschools and childcare, both in centers and in family homes, may be rated. However, the systems are largely voluntary, and states have different rules about which providers are eligible for a rating.
  2. Each state defines “quality” in its own way, and the definitions vary widely.

Most states rate providers on a scale of 1-to-4 or 1-to-5; the higher the number, the higher the quality. But because each state uses a unique rating formula and set of information to measure quality, the same child care center or preschool provider could receive a high rating in one state, and a low rating in another. For example, some states require programs to meet a list of highly specific criteria for each rating level, while other states base ratings on points earned from a variety of factors or a combination of specific criteria and points. Consider:

  • In states that use points to determine ratings, two programs with a very different profile of strengths and limitations could both receive the same ratings.
  • In states that use highly specific criteria, programs with the same rating levels will be fairly similar in their strengths and limitations.

Parents can refer to their state’s Quality Rating and Improvement System website to learn more about what each rating level means in their state, and which providers can participate. However, parents should also know that many state systems are examining their ratings to learn if they make meaningful distinctions among providers, and (here’s what parents want to know) whether their state’s ratings are related to children’s learning and developmental outcomes. Validation and evaluation studies are underway in several states—including AIR work in California and Michigan. Until a state has completed this kind of evaluation, it’s difficult to know how meaningful the state’s quality ratings are. Meanwhile, parents can learn:

  1. If their preschool or child care provider is rated, and what the rating is;
  2. What the ratings mean in their state; and
  3. Whether their state is conducting validation or evaluation research on the rating system.

This blog post was written by Laura Hawkinson and Karen Manship. Hawkinson, a researcher at AIR, is a former childcare teacher and has conducted policy-relevant research on early childhood programs for more than nine years. Manship, a senior research at AIR, focuses on early childhood and K-12 education policy and finance.

Karen Manship
Managing Director