Back to School …. Is Everybody Ready?

BlogEarly ChildhoodAug 31 2011

It’s back to school time.  And those of us concerned about the very youngest of children turn our thoughts to whether this year’s kindergarteners are ready for school.  Of course, we are well aware that the skills and abilities needed to thrive in kindergarten – and beyond — can and should be nurtured from the very beginning of life.   Fortunately, more and more practitioners and policymakers understand this and are embracing early learning.  At the state level, an increasing number of education researchers and child care administrators have been working to develop effective ways to measure children’s readiness for school.

Child Trends has tracked the Early Learning Guidelines (ELGs) states are using to help define what children should know and be able to do upon school entry. This brief also identifies the extent to which states monitor the number of children statewide who are, indeed, ready for kindergarten.  As states work diligently to meet the October 19 application deadline for Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grants, states’ use of ELGs and kindergarten readiness assessments will play an important role in helping states address the criteria mandating that applicants should “develop common standards within the State and assessments that measure child outcomes,” as outlined in the Early Learning Challenge press release.

Over half of the states utilize an assessment to gain a better understanding of children’s skills and abilities when they enter kindergarten. In most states, the information gathered from these assessments is used to inform a child’s individual instructional plan. Only a few states conduct a school-readiness assessment to track the percentage of children statewide who are “ready for school,” “in progress,” or “not ready for school.” Examples of these states include Alaska,  Connecticut, Florida, HawaiiMaryland, Minnesota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

The statewide kindergarten assessment approach may be growing. This past school year, Washington state launched a pilot of the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills. Ohio has plans to develop a kindergarten readiness assessment with funding it received as part of its successful K-12 Race to the Top application. And, California passed legislation in 2010 that established a voluntary statewide kindergarten readiness assessment tool. Illinois has also released a report that describes a process they have developed for implementing a new readiness assessment.

As states move forward with this important work, research can shed light on a few best practices. First, school readiness is not as simple as knowing letters and numbers. Young children not only need to be ready for early academics, they need to be socially, physically, and emotionally ready for school. Assessments that can capture the readiness of the child holistically will not only be more informative, they will be more appropriate for this young and developing population. States also have to be clear about reasons for assessing young children. Each purpose, whether to monitor individual developmental progress, inform state policy, or screen for developmental delay, has its own unique set of appropriate practices and implications for data use that have to be carefully considered. For more information, see this Child Trends brief: Early Childhood Predictors of Early School Success.

Even after all schools are in session, the spotlight will continue to shine on early learning as states prepare their proposals for the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge.  As the RTT states are selected, we will no doubt learn of new, innovative approaches to monitoring school readiness across states.