Efforts to introduce a statewide system of developmentally appropriate kindergarten readiness assessment was front page news in yesterday’s Boston Sunday Globe.
“Kindergartners – who are not expected to know how to read or write – would not be filling in bubble sheets or answering essay questions,” the Globe reports. “Instead, teachers would measure students’ early knowledge of literacy and math by carefully observing and questioning them during classroom activities, meticulously documenting their performance against a set of state standards, and including samples of their work. They will also take note of students’ social, cognitive, emotional, and physical development.
“Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, emphasized that the kindergarten readiness assessments, which are in the conceptual phase, ‘shouldn’t be mistaken for an early MCAS’ and will not be used to determine who should enter kindergarten. ‘It will be a more subtle and nuanced approach to assessing students,’ Reville said. ‘The goal is to get a better sense of how students are doing, particularly in literacy.’’’
Kindergarten readiness is a key feature of the $500 federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge, a competitive grant programs unveiled by the Obama administration in the spring. Massachusetts is eligible for up to $50 million over four years, and state officials are now preparing the commonwealth’s application, due October 19. Half of states have implemented kindergarten readiness assessment, according to a report last year from the National Conference of State Legislatures, although what they measure varies widely. A competitive priority of the Early Learning Challenge calls for states without a system of kindergarten readiness assessment to implement one by the 2014-15 school year. Such a system, the ELC application notes, should measure multiple areas of children’s development. (Read a summary of the Early Learning Challenge and the status of early education in Massachusetts.)
Currently, the third grade MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) is the first statewide measure of student progress, although it is well-known and well-documented that the achievement gap is evident long before children enter kindergarten. The federal challenge to boost quality in states’ early learning systems, the Globe notes, comes at a time when performance on the third grade MCAS test of reading has remained virtually stagnant over the past decade. According to 2011 MCAS results, 39% of the commonwealth’s third graders scored below proficient in reading.
“It’s too late to wait until third grade to see how students are doing,’’ Sherri Killins, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, tells the Globe.
Developmentally appropriate assessment of young children helps teachers tailor instruction to children’s needs and gives parents important information about their children’s development. Some experts, the Globe reports, caution that schools need adequate resources and training to conduct assessments and evaluate results. At the Boston Public Schools’ Baldwin Early Learning Center in Brighton, teachers learned from assessments that some boys had trouble moving from one activity to the next. So they introduced activities to ease transitions. “I think we are better teachers because of these assessments,’’ one teacher tells the Globe.
Kindergarten readiness assessment would also help the state track children’s progress and target resources. “By answering some fundamental questions – such as ‘how many kindergartners can actually read?’ or ‘how many do not know their ABCs?’- the state says it can more effectively target money and create new programs for elementary schools with large numbers of students lagging in key skills,” the Globe reports. “The state can also use the data to shore up both public and private preschool programs, many of which base their instructional practices on state academic standards.”
As sensitive as the issue of assessing young children can be, many experts believe that, appropriately administered, they can help improve educational opportunities for all children.
“I know assessments can be a hot-button issue,’’ Amy O’Leary, director of our Early Education for All Campaign, tells the Globe. “What I would hope the assessment will give us is good information about where children are, so we are able to match resources to help those children.’’