I’m always excited by the research that comes out of the venerable Sesame Workshop, but it was hard to feel cheery after reading the recently published brief, Kindergartners’ Skills at School Entry. It reports remarkable differences in readiness for kindergarten for kids with identified risk factors. And a stunning 44% of students in the study were affected by at least one risk factor. The brief, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, may be found here.
The original study, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 2010-11 (ECLS-K:2011) sponsored by the National Center for Educational Statistics, aggregates multiple data points from different assessment instruments, including direct assessment and indirect assessment, such as teacher interviews, which create a composite school readiness indicator. This composite score serves as a compelling proxy for analysts to look at the relationship between school readiness and four risk factors. The risk factors include:
- single guardian households
- mothers who didn’t graduate from high school
- households that fall below the poverty line
- households where English is not spoken primarily.
While none of the risk factors de facto cause lack of readiness in literacy, numeracy, or social skills, they have been found to correlate to them.
The brief reported a distressingly predictable linear relationship: the more risk factors students enter kindergarten with, the further behind they are. “High-risk children (those with all four risk factors) were found to be nearly a year behind their peers with no risk factors in their reading and math abilities” (from Sesame Workshop’s website). A year behind? Oh boy. That’s a challenge on so many levels, not least of which is the need for differentiating instruction right from the gate, assuming that is even an option. Differentiated instruction takes intensive resources that not all schools can provide.
What’s so hard to take is how unfair it is. Kids have no control over where they begin. We know that. Our understanding of the scope of the injustice is increasing in part because the data are getting better. We are able to assess students at younger ages in valid and compassionate ways. And in fact, assessing students at the beginning of kindergarten is becoming a necessity because we need to take the problem of unequal student readiness seriously and fix it.
When we are dealing with a homogeneous population, we can entertain arguments around less assessment of the youngest learners. But we aren’t dealing with a homogeneous population—far from it. When we begin to process how significant the differences in readiness for kindergarten really are, reliable assessment data become a critical societal need. Assessment data can be a lens that helps identify areas where attention should be focused and who is most at risk. We might not like what we see when we look at the data, but clearly understanding the problem is a necessary first step to solving it.
Falling behind is much easier when you start from behind. Playing catch-up never feels like a winner’s game. This can have long-term academic, career and even societal consequences. The kids most impacted by this are the most vulnerable. Not only does every child deserve an education; she deserves to be prepared to participate fully in that education. Kids don’t get a second chance at a great start.