Early Childhood

Study: Kindergartners Start School With More Academic Skills Than in Past

By Christina A. Samuels — February 27, 2017 3 min read
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Kindergarten students in 2010 started school with noticeably stronger literacy, math, and behavior skills across the board compared to their peers that started school just 12 years earlier, says a study published this month in the journal Educational Researcher.

The new research was developed by the same researchers who found in a 2014 study that the kindergarten classrooms of today are more like the 1st-grade classrooms of years past. And if more 5-year-olds are starting school easily naming upper and lower-case letters or understanding relative quantities, it might seem like a more academic approach is warranted.

But that’s a line of thinking that the researchers want to avoid, said Daphna Bassok, an associate professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia and the lead author on both papers.

“The question is, how to make kindergarten as engaging for kids as possible?” she said. “Nothing about what we’re saying here is about the way you teach a 5-year-old.”

Starting School Knowing More

The researchers used two data sets that collected information on students who started school in 1998, and in 2010. As a part of both data sets, teachers were asked to assess childrens’ skills in a variety of areas, including upper- and lower-case letter recognition, ability to solve simple math problems, or skill at reading simple books independently. A score of 1 meant that the child had not yet demonstrated that skill, while 5 meant that the child demonstrated the skill competently and consistently.

The study noted that in 1998, students’ average score on the overall math measure was 2.51 when they started school in the fall, and 3.62 in the spring after several months of instruction. Students in 2010 started kindergarten with an average math score of 2.70, suggesting that they were entering school already knowing about 17 percent of what they previously would have learned over the course of their kindergarten year.

Teachers’ expectations of their children has changed over time, as Bassok had noted in previous studies. So one might think that teachers in 2010 would offer a tougher assessment of kindergarten students if their skills had not kept pace.

But across the board, teachers said that more of their students were starting school demonstrating strong academic skills. And, while white students outperformed students of other races, the rate of growth for black students was faster than for students of other races.

For example, 22 percent of white students were evaluated as having high math skills in 1998. That figure went up to 31 percent in 2010, a 9 percentage-point gain.

But for black children, the number of children rated as being highly proficient in math rose from 12 to 25 percent—a 13 percentage-point gain.

So what’s behind the change? Bassok said that only some of the increased skills could be directly tied, using these data sets, to preschool attendance or differences in parenting. But both of those factors played a role, she said. Overall, “kids are just doing more academic things than they did in the past,” she said—even the relatively recent past.

The question Bassok said she has received from some readers is if this should be seen as a good change or a bad change. To the extent that early-childhood education policy has been focused on closing achievement gaps, that appears to be working, she said.

And findings such as these might prompt teachers to spend less time repeating information that children already know, like the alphabet. But educators of young children should also stay aware of developmentally appropriate educational practices, Bassok said. “We should just be responsive to who our students are.”

Photo:Teacher Lori Gates talks to Bella Mohan, who plays at a station with a dollhouse at Jefferson Elementary School in Rockland, Mass., in 2015. —Charlie Mohoney for Education Week-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.