4 Trends in Early Care and Education Quality Rating and Improvement Systems

Fact SheetEarly ChildhoodJul 17 1980

Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) aim to rate, improve, and communicate the quality of early care and education (ECE) programs. As part of an evaluation of Parent Aware, Minnesota’s QRIS, Child Trends conducted a literature review and interviews with QRIS administrators in six states: Delaware, Louisiana, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Washington. Based on this work, here are four trends in QRIS that leaders in the ECE field should keep an eye on, especially as states plan revisions to their QRIS.

1Shifting focus from rating to quality improvement

QRIS were designed around the assumption that ratings would support and encourage quality improvement among ECE programs, but some states are moving away from an emphasis on ratings to instead focus on improvement. Reasons for this shift vary. Some states hope to reduce point-in-time assessments that rely heavily on extensive paperwork, which some providers think are cumbersome or may not accurately represent program quality. Other states are concerned about lagging QRIS participation rates or little change in ratings over time among programs that do participate.

Some of the states we interviewed are shifting their focus from ratings to quality improvement by changing how observations are used within their QRIS—promoting the use of scores to inform programs’ quality improvement without always having the added pressure of scores impacting ratings.[1] For example, both Vermont and Michigan allow programs to receive observations that don’t impact programs’ ratings and work with a coach to inform their quality improvement plans. Other states are expanding the list of observation tools used within the rating process so programs can choose the tool that is most relevant and useful to their unique needs. Both Michigan and Pennsylvania allow programs to choose from multiple observation tools and provide training on choosing a tool and using results to inform quality improvement goals.

2Balancing universal vs. customized requirements

One critique of QRIS is that a one-size-fits-all approach to quality standards may not be appropriate or relevant for family child care programs. Although nearly all QRIS include both centers and family child care programs, states grapple with how to best define and measure quality across program types.

Some states have a universal set of QRIS requirements. While this has advantages (e.g., the system is streamlined and easy to navigate, and the same requirements apply to all ECE programs), quality can look different in different program types, so universal requirements may privilege certain program types over others. In response, some states are revising their universal quality standards to ensure relevance across program types, while others have created different requirements for each program type. Other states are taking a hybrid approach, maintaining a universal set of standards for simplicity while also explaining how meeting standards may vary slightly across program types—sometimes engaging providers and other stakeholders in the process. Pennsylvania, for example, engaged providers and QRIS staff to understand any standards that could be confusing or less relevant to school-age and family child care programs, and then added clarifications as needed.

3Striving toward more equitable QRIS

Prior research highlights notable inequities within state QRIS. QRIS participation patterns and perceptions of providers across states indicate that some QRIS do not align with how providers see their own quality and the supports they need for improvement. Current quality standards may not be inclusive of common practices across culturally and linguistically diverse communities, and some providers may feel excluded from QRIS or face greater barriers to earning higher ratings. Current standards also rely heavily on a program’s material and professional resources (e.g., facilities, staff training), which may disproportionately privilege large and well-resourced programs. Improvement strategies may be delivered by coaches and other staff who don’t match providers’ race, ethnicity, language, and culture. Improving equity in QRIS means revising quality standards to align with the needs and values of diverse communities, addressing disparities in who feels authentically invited to participate in QRIS, and ensuring that participating providers are supported and rewarded for their work.

All six states interviewed are using a variety of strategies to embed equity into their QRIS. Vermont recently removed tiered reimbursement within its QRIS, so all programs will receive the highest child care subsidy reimbursement rate regardless of their rating. According to a QRIS administrator from Vermont, better-resourced programs are more often able to achieve higher star ratings, so decoupling ratings from subsidy reimbursement rates could represent a move toward equity. QRIS administrators from Louisiana shared that they think about equity at the system level, leveraging data to understand and improve statewide access to high-quality ECE across geographies and age groups. Washington is exploring ways to make its QRIS more accessible and relevant to providers, in part by hiring diverse QRIS staff and increasing language accessibility. Other states are incorporating equity into their quality standards to ensure relevance for diverse communities. For example, some states offer providers credit toward their desired ratings for completing training on equity-focused topics such as reducing racial bias in the classroom.

As states embed equity within QRIS—particularly into quality standards related to staff professional development—they must also consider inequities within the ECE workforce. The national ECE workforce, of which 40 percent are women of color, has historically been underpaid and undervalued. Placing the burden of quality improvement solely on providers exacerbates working conditions that are unsupportive of workforce health and well-being. States must consider how QRIS standards create additional financial or administrative burden for providers and how they can make commensurate investments in fair pay and other workforce supports.

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4Incorporating stakeholder feedback into QRIS revisions

Rather than using a top-down approach, the six states engaged providers and families to inform changes during the QRIS revision process. In Delaware, families told QRIS administrators that they did not know the difference between star ratings or consider ratings in decisions about child care—instead focusing on factors such as affordability, location, and vacancies. Partly as a result of this feedback, Delaware removed the “rating” aspect of its QRIS. However, states should anticipate challenges to gathering and incorporating feedback from stakeholders. These include making sure that feedback-gathering events fit within stakeholders’ schedules and striking a balance between gathering feedback without overburdening stakeholders.

Child Trends conducted this research as part of an evaluation of Parent Aware, Minnesota’s QRIS, for the Minnesota Department of Human Services. You can read more about the evaluation on the project webpage and read the full Child Trends report of findings from the literature scan and interviews here: Insights on QRIS from Six States and a Literature Review. The authors also want to thank Holly Keaton, Catherine Schaefer, and Keiyitho Omonuwa, who co-authored the full report, for their contributions to the work.


[1] Currently, many state QRIS use observation scores primarily to determine programs’ ratings (e.g., states require programs to earn a score above a certain threshold to earn a rating).

Suggested citation

Hilty, R., Diamond, Z., Cleveland, J., & Tout, K. (2024). 4 trends in early care and education Quality Rating and Improvement Systems. Child Trends. DOI: 10.56417/5075b7390o