In the not-too-distant past, the kindergarten classrooms at Pleasant Grove Elementary in Heflin, Ala., looked much the same as classrooms for older children.
Desks were arranged in rows. Children worked on worksheets. “There wasn’t a lot of differentiation in your instruction,” said Kristi Moore, a kindergarten teacher at the school, located halfway between Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta. “Most of all your children were taught the same way.”
But in recent years, the school has tried to shift instruction in a way that they say works better for young children. And they credit the use of a comprehensive method of evaluating kindergarten students, called kindergarten entry assessment, as one of the tools that allowed them to do that.
Kindergarten entry assessments, which some states call “kindergarten readiness assessments” or “kindergarten entry inventories,” are intended to guide a teacher’s instructional practice. They may include direct assessment of children’s skills, teacher observations, or both. They’re intended to give teachers a well-rounded picture of the whole child, including his or her academic, social, and physical development.
While these assessments are becoming more widespread—boosted by federal support during the Obama administration—they’re offering mixed results for teachers and for school districts.
Supporters say they’re useful in supporting all elements of a child’s development during their important early school days.
Others have criticized the assessments as an additional burden that doesn’t let teachers know what they should do with all the data they’re expected to collect. And the assessments also raise concerns for some that they’ll be used for high-stakes purposes, like evaluating teachers or sorting children into educational tracks.
One School’s Experience
Even as that debate continues the assessments are a reality in most states.
Schools such as Pleasant Grove Elementary offer an example of how these assessments can be used well, teachers there say. Moore and other educators said the assessment prompted them to put aside pacing guides and highly structured instruction that didn’t allow time for other parts of child development, which the kindergarten entry assessment outlined as important.
The state department of education and its department of early-childhood education have given grants to seven Alabama schools, including Pleasant Grove, to continue this work.
And the teachers say they appreciate being able to adjust their methods as well. “Now you’re free to differentiate your instruction all during the day,” Moore said, incorporating reading, math, and other academics into more active, developmentally appropriate learning.
As Pleasant Grove demonstrates, “We clearly have found pockets of teachers and of schools where they really understand how to use these resources,” said Richard Lambert, a professor in the department of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
Lambert, who also serves as the director of the university’s Center for Educational Measurement and Evaluation, has studied the use of kindergarten entry assessments in North Carolina and other states. He is also a consultant to the company Teaching Strategies, which created one of the most widely used assessment of this type, Teaching Strategies Gold. Nine states use this measure to evaluate kindergarten students, or as part of their state measure.
Lambert has conducted surveys of teachers in North Carolina and in other states. Getting teachers to use the information the tests yield and then to modify their teaching based on it is no small task, he said. Teachers are sometimes seeing these tests the way they see end-of-the-year tests, rather than as measures that are supposed to be capturing a child’s growth over time.
There’s also more variability among teacher evaluations of child skills than could be explained by just differences among children, Lambert said. That suggests that while some teachers understand how the measurement tool is supposed to work, others need more assistance in knowing just how to evaluate children.
Kindergarten entry assessments or inventories are not new, but they received a big push through the federal Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants, which required applicants to outline a plan of how they were going to use these assessments to promote school readiness. The assessments were required to measure “language and literacy, cognition and general knowledge, approaches to learning, physical well-being and motor development, and social-emotional development,” the grant said.
The U.S. Department of Education also had a different grant program just to support state creation of kindergarten-entry assessments.
Researchers have raised questions about whether the assessments meet one goal of providing an academic boost for students. In 2016, the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands wrote a report saying that using kindergarten entry assessments did not produce statistically significant improvements on students’ early reading or math skills.
But the students in that study would have started school well before the Education Department started giving money to states to create or improve their entry assessments.
In Virginia, about half of the state’s school divisions are piloting a program called the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program. The state already requires incoming kindergartners to be measured on preliteracy skills. The kindergarten-readiness program adds evaluations of children’s math, social, and self-regulation skills.
It also provides tools for teachers if children show that they are lagging in those areas, said Amanda Williford, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who developed the measure and is working with districts in implementing it.
“Self-regulation and social skills are just as important, and it’s the same kind of skill as reading and math,” Williford said. “It’s learned in school, just like reading and math are. If a kid was struggling to read, we would never say they don’t belong in our classroom.”
Melita Ring, a kindergarten teacher at Amelon Elementary in Madison Heights, Va., said she likes having the one-on-one time with her students, and having resources to help students right at her fingertips.
“They’re giving you that opportunity to not only teach the children who are struggling, but to learn other ways of doing so,” Ring said.
Karma Hugo, the director of early learning for Washington state, said this fall marks the first statewide use of a kindergarten entry assessment, called Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills, or WaKIDS. The rollout has been rocky, she acknowledged, as teachers learned how to make meaningful use of the information.
But it has already borne useful results, Hugo said. For example, the findings helped some teachers realize they were asking more in terms of social-emotional growth of their young students than is appropriate for kindergarten-age students. Other findings have helped schools realize that their incoming students needed more math support.
“Many of the bumps that we’ve encountered have ultimately shined lights on opportunities for improvement,” Hugo said.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Kindergarten Assessments Start to Bear Fruit