A new population-level measure shows promise for identifying young children who are healthy and ready to learn

Publication Date:

June 30, 2020

Child Trends cares deeply about developing measures and using data to understand and track progress toward well-being among children across racial, economic, and social groups. As Child Trends’ president Carol Emig recently said, we hope that this moment in history will mark a turning point for the nation in the fight against racism and injustice. As we begin the work of building better public systems for children and families post-pandemic, we must put equity at the center of those efforts. We believe that having a measure of Healthy and Ready to Learn for states and the nation is an example of the potential power of data to advance equity-minded and evidence-informed efforts to overcome the effects of racism that affect preschool children.

Researchers at Child Trends, partnering with the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau (HRSA MCHB), developed a new parent-reported measure of Healthy and Ready to Learn (HRTL) for preschoolers ages 3 to 5. This measure is collected annually via the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) and describes development for children across four domains, including Early Learning Skills, Self-Regulation, Social-Emotional, and Physical Health. Children are scored as “On Track” in each domain, and an overall measure indicates whether children are “On Track” in all four domains, three, two, or one to no domains. 

The skills children gain before starting kindergarten set the stage for their future success in school. While there are several tools that measure individual children’s readiness for kindergarten, there has been, until now, no comprehensive, population-level tool that can tell us about children’s competencies prior to kindergarten. A population-level tool would identify groups of children who need more support, inform program and policy decisions, and show us trends in children’s skills over time.

The pilot National Outcome Measure, Healthy and Ready to Learn (HRTL), shows promise as a valid population-level tool that can describe the school readiness of young children ages 3 to 5 across developmental domains—including the important domains of social-emotional and self-regulation development, for which there are only limited assessments. In one indication of the new measure’s validity, children’s HRTL scores are clearly and strongly associated with social, economic, and family circumstances in ways that are consistent with previous research. For example, as shown in four briefs, children in economically disadvantaged families and neighborhoods are less likely to be healthy and ready to learn in all four domains. These findings highlight the promise of HRTL to detect population-level patterns and trends in preschoolers’ school readiness, where previously no such measure was available for states or the nation. Indeed, having a valid population-level tool to assess school readiness can reveal new opportunities for researcher-community partnerships and activities that inform state policies, programming, and budgeting to most effectively serve children’s needs.