By the end of kindergarten, most children have acquired beginning reading and mathematics skills and show that they have gained knowledge over the course of the year, according to the first-ever long-term study of the nation’s kindergartners.
But a closer look at that population shows that children from disadvantaged households aren’t picking up higher-level skills as quickly as their peers from more advantaged families.
“We see a very different picture when we look at children’s acquisition of specific knowledge and skills,” write the authors of “The Kindergarten Year,” which was scheduled to be released last Friday by U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. The report is the second to emerge from the federal longitudinal study.
The researchers conclude that during the kindergarten year children who have at least one risk factor—such as living with a single mother, having a mother with less than a high school education, or being on welfare—are actually closing the achievement gap on basic skills with classmates who lack such risk factors.
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Those findings, according to one researcher involved in the study, confirm what many early-childhood education experts say: All youngsters are “ready to learn” when they start kindergarten regardless of their family circumstances.
“What this study clearly shows is that children who enter with a range of specific skill levels all make progress in kindergarten,” said Nicholas Zill, the director of child and family studies at Westat, a research company in Rockville, Md., that is conducting the study. Still, children from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to trail other classmates on more advanced tasks.
According to the study, 94 percent of all children evaluated for the study knew all the letters of the alphabet, and 72 percent demonstrated that they understood the sound of a letter at the beginning of a word.
But there was a drop in the percentages of children who had mastered more difficult early reading skills. About half the children understood the “letter-sound relationship” at the ends of words, and just 13 percent showed that they knew words by sight.
The same pattern occurred in mathematics.
By the end of the kindergarten year, 99 percent of the children recognized numbers and basic shapes. And a large majority of pupils showed that they understood the relative size of objects. But just over half understood ordinal numbers, and only 18 percent could do simple addition and subtraction.
‘Only the Beginning’
Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the kindergarten report is part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which began with a nationally representative sample of 22,000 children who entered kindergarten in the fall of 1998. The new report focuses on the 95 percent of the sample that entered kindergarten for the first time that year.
The children in the study, who are now in 2nd grade, attend both public and private schools and participate in both full-day and part-day programs at roughly 1,000 schools.
The current report follows one released last February, which painted a picture of the nation’s kindergartners as they enter school. (“Kindergarten Study Taking Long View,” Feb. 23, 2000.)
In the February report, researchers concluded that young children come from increasingly different backgrounds, but that most are eager to learn in school and can perform simple academic tasks. That report also showed that parents and teachers often have different views about children’s behavior and attitudes toward learning.
According to the new report, teachers say younger children in kindergarten are learning to pay attention in class, while the older children have already developed that ability.
As researchers continue to follow the students through the 5th grade, they will examine the roles that child care and the educational environment in the home have had on the children’s development and school performance.
Other issues—such as their teachers’ instructional practices, class size, and school facilities—will also be analyzed in future reports.
The students were tested in 1st grade and will also be assessed in grades 3 and 5.
“This report,” according to the authors, “represents only the beginning of understanding the role of the kindergarten year in children’s development.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Math and Reading Skills Examined In Kindergarten Study