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About Those 'Kindergarten-Entry Assessments' in Race to the Top

Published:  July 7, 2011

Assessments of children’s “readiness” for school will undoubtedly be a big piece of the new Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge and, given that early childhood providers have qualms about 4-year-olds being forced to take inappropriate tests, concerns are rampant. But are these fears realized in the proposed guidelines for the competition? We don’t think so – at least not based on a close reading of what we’ve seen so far. (The final guidelines are expected in mid-August.)

Already, 24 states administer common kindergarten readiness assessments, according to a report from the National Council of State Legislatures, and 11 of them reportedly cover multiple domains of readiness, including social-emotional development. Many are based on a teacher’s or another adult's observations of a child's skills.  Teachers use those observations to determine whether, for example, a student is able to identify sounds or name letters of the alphabet. Some include a teacher's assessment of how well a student is able to follow directions or interact with peers.

Concerns arise when policymakers interpret “school readiness” to mean academic performance narrowly conceived – like relying only on assessments of a child’s ability to name letters and their sounds. And alarms sound when assessments are used to delay children starting kindergarten. There are also some of the same concerns central to the assessment and accountability debates in the K-12 sphere—many early childhood experts cringe at the idea of tying children’s scores on assessments to rewards or consequences that affect individual children, teachers and/or pre-kindergarten programs.

There is no indication that the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services intend to ask states to do any of the above with these particular assessments. First, officials have designed the RTT-ELC requirements to push more states to create readiness assessments that cover multiple dimensions of children’s abilities and do much more than simply track literacy skills. Second, the assessments are not described as tools to deny children entry to kindergarten - in fact it's highly likely that this practice would not be allowed.  

There is, however, one section that gives us pause. Section C of the proposed guidelines – titled “High-Quality, Accountable Programs – says that states should develop a plan for demonstrating the relationship between programs’ quality ratings and children’s learning outcomes. We aren’t sure what that means – there is no mention of kindergarten-entry assessments in this section – and we’ll be taking a closer look in a future post.

In general, the requirements on kindergarten-entry assessments appear to place an emphasis on improving instruction (helping teachers of kindergarten and the early grades tailor their instruction to better meet the needs of the young children entering their classrooms) and providing states with clearer indicators of children’s development at or around age 5.

Let’s begin by looking at Absolute Priority 1, one of the key sections of the propose guidelines. Under this priority, states must develop a plan to begin administering a “kindergarten-entry assessment” statewide no later than the start of the 2014-2015 school year. The goals of the assessment, according to the proposed guidelines, are to inform efforts to close the readiness gap and to inform instruction and services in the early grades of elementary school.

There is no mention of using the assessments to determine kindergarten entry eligibility, nor is there any specific mention of using children’s scores from these specific assessments to determine whether certain programs or teachers are doing a good job. The program’s approach to child assessment is not accountability-focused, meaning the guidelines do not encourage states to turn these assessments into high-stakes tests. This is not about paper-and-pencil testing, which would be highly inappropriate and unreliable in children this young.

Back in April when this Race to the Top program was approved by Congress legislators included specific language about assessment in the law that provided funding for the program. The law requires that “any use of assessments conforms with the recommendations of the National Research Council’s reports on early childhood.”

It’s likely that this phrase was included to ward off a potential outcry over inappropriate testing. But what isn’t clear from that line – nor from the information distributed by the federal agencies so far – is how the reports should govern what states can or cannot do.  For example, one of the NRC reports – Early Childhood Assessment Why, What, And how? – recommends against the use of readiness assessments to deny children entry into kindergarten. Do the Departments of Education and HHS embrace that specific recommendation? We can’t be sure, but it would seem that it would be if they are following the rule of law.

We also don’t know with certainty whether these readiness assessments would be administered prior to or at the start of the kindergarten year. Based on what we’ve seen so far, these assessments are usually administered in the first month or two of kindergarten. That would be the only way to ensure that all children – as written in the proposed requirements -- are counted. But because this program is designed to provide structure to a birth-to-age-5 system, would states recognize that this would require elementary schools to assist in gathering reliable information on children from their kindergarten classrooms?

The proposed guidelines also state that kindergarten entry assessments must be aligned with the state’s early learning and development standards and cover all of the essential domains of school readiness. The guidelines define “early learning and development standards” as

“A set of expectations, guidelines, or developmental milestones that describe what all children from birth until kindergarten entry should know and be able to do and their disposition toward learning. These standards must be appropriate for each age group of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers and English learners, and for children with developmental delays and disabilities. In addition, the standards must cover all the Essential Domains of School Readiness, and must be developmentally, linguistically, and culturally appropriate.”

According to the guidelines, the essential domains of school readiness include language and literacy development, cognition and general knowledge (including early mathematics and early scientific development), approaches toward learning, physical well-being and motor development and social and emotional development.

Also required is evidence that a state applicant’s readiness assessment:

  • Is valid, reliable, and appropriate for the target population and for the purpose for which it will be used;
  • Is appropriate for all children, including English learners and children with disabilities; and
  • Is reported to the Statewide Longitudinal Data System, and to the early learning data system if it is separate from the Statewide Longitudinal Data System, as permitted under and consistent with the requirements of Federal State, and local, privacy laws.

The addition of this information to a state's data system would enable states to look at data on student growth and development before children reach third grade, when they typically participate in their first statewide standardized tests. 

That, indeed, seems to be what the agencies want, since another of the program’s requirements is for states to create “performance measures” for their early learning system. One of those measures relates to readiness scores: States would need to establish baseline numbers, annual targets, and final goals for improving performance of high-need children on the state’s kindergarten entry measure.  There is no mention of states imposing penalties on programs or localities that do not hit those targets.

States would also be required to disaggregate these data by race, gender, disability status, and English learner status.

Separate from the kindergarten-entry requirements, but also under Absolute Priority 1, the guidelines also require states to develop a “comprehensive assessment system.” This is defined as a coordinated system of multiple assessments. But it is unclear whether  this system would be separate from or incorporated with the kindergarten-entry assessments. The requirements are a little muddy. At a minimum, the guidelines say, the system should include: screening measures, formative assessments, measures of environmental quality and measures of the quality of adult-child interaction.

Based on the federal agencies’ definition of formative  assessments, these tools could help to answer questions such as how children are progressing developmentally, what they are able to do and where they are struggling. The measures of environmental quality and teacher interactions could provide information on whether their pre-kindergarten or childcare programs are offering high-quality environments and whether their teachers know how to enrich their language development by engaging them in conversation and interesting activities.

The expectation, according to the guidelines, is that early childhood educators would use the information imparted from this set of comprehensive assessment tools to make informed instructional and programmatic decisions.

Overall, we think that this particular part of the proposed requirements is on the right path. In fact, some experts have said that, done well, the challenge could push the field forward – especially if it leads to more appropriate and multi-dimensional assessment tools. This would, of course, depend on how winning states actually carry out their plans once they’ve been awarded grants.

You can tell the Departments what you think until Monday June 11 at 5:00 p.m.

Stay tuned for Early Ed Watch’s continuing coverage on the Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge. Check out our special page. And for more on this topic:

Read comments from early June (before the draft guidelines were released) submitted by several Early Childhood organizations (American Humane Association, CLASP, Early Care and Education Consortium, First Focus, National Association for the Education of Young Children, National Black Child Development Institute, National Organization for Women, National Women’s Law Center, Teaching Strategies, Inc, ZERO TO THREE on RTT-ELC to the Departments of Education.) One of the topics discussed is child assessment.

Also read Dana Goldstein’s thoughtful piece about RTT-ELC and assessment on The Notion, The Nation’s Group Blog.

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