Longitudinal Study Finds Gender And Race Gaps Among 1st Graders

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Girls are more likely than boys to be reading by the spring of 1st grade. Boys, on the other hand, show greater proficiency in mathematics by that time, according to the latest results of an ongoing, federally financed study of elementary school children.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99, is following a nationally representative sample of some 22,000 children through the spring of 5th grade. At the time the children were selected for the study, they were attending about 1,000 kindergarten programs around the country.

The latest installment of the study, released this month, reinforces the belief that children who are frequently read to and who recognize letters and numbers when they enter school have a clear advantage over youngsters who lack such a foundation.

"Children who demonstrate early-literacy skills and who come from a positive literacy environment, who possess a positive approach to learning, and who enjoy very good or excellent general health seem to perform better after one and even two years of formal schooling than children who do not have these resources," the report states. As they near the end of 1st grade, the study shows, most children have acquired the early-reading skills that experts say they need for future success.

Ninety-five percent of the pupils in the study knew all the letters of the alphabet by that point, 98 percent were making the letter-sound connection at the beginning of words, and about 83 percent recognized common words by sight.

In math, 96 percent of the children understood the relative position of objects by that time in the school year, and about 76 percent could add and subtract simple numbers—both skills that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics says children should learn by 2nd grade. In addition, about one-fourth of the students—with boys being more likely—were multiplying and dividing simple whole units.

In reading, 85 percent of the 1st grade girls could recognize words by sight, compared with 80 percent of the boys. And in math, 30 percent of the 1st grade boys were beginning to solve multiplication and division problems, compared with 24 percent of the girls.

Differences in the achievement of poor children and their more advantaged peers are clear.

Just 67 percent of 1st graders from impoverished families were able to recognize words by sight, for example, compared with 86 percent of 1st graders from families that were not poor, the study found. Children living in poverty were also less likely than those from higher-income families to be adding and subtracting by late in the 1st grade—60 percent, compared with 79 percent.

Children's race and ethnicity are also factors. By the spring of 1st grade, white and Asian-American children were more likely than African-American or Hispanic children to recognize words by sight, understand words in context, add and subtract, and multiply and divide.

Different Kindergartens

On norm-referenced assessments specifically designed for the early-childhood study, white children typically scored near the national average in both reading and math. African-American children entered school scoring below the national average in those areas and remained there at the end of 1st grade. Hispanic children entered school and remained at the national average in mathematics, but significantly below average in reading. However, by the time the Hispanic pupils were finishing 1st grade, they were closing that gap.

The types of schools that children had attended during kindergarten also appeared to make a difference. First graders from private kindergarten programs scored significantly higher than the national average in reading and math, while those who had attended public school programs scored at the average.

Marilou Hyson, an associate executive director of the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, said one important finding of the report was the influence that children's health and attitudes about learning have on their performance.

"This says to me that prekindergarten and early-childhood programs should pay close attention to the whole child, as well as literacy and other content," she said.

The National Center for Education Statistics, the division of the U.S. Department of Education conducting the study, will continue to follow the sample of students into the 3rd and 5th grades.

Vol. 21, Issue 27, Page 7

Published in Print: March 20, 2002, as Longitudinal Study Finds Gender And Race Gaps Among 1st Graders
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