There is something dreadful about testing incoming kindergarten students at the beginning of the school year. When I was a reading specialist, I assessed students entering with lower proficiency in early literacy and numeracy skills. It was my least favorite part of the job.
These students were typically from non-dominant backgrounds, emerging bilingual, and facing barriers to high-quality early learning opportunities. Our assessment typically unfolded like this: I would pull them from their homeroom. We’d attempt to build a friendly relationship on the walk to my office. The student would begin reading from a scripted testing manual, which required them to identify letters and numbers. The entire process was often extremely difficult for them and left us both feeling emotional and exhausted.
The role of policy and advocacy in early learning
The frustration I felt when working with those young kids was part of what led me to my current role as policy advisor for NWEA. When I speak with policymakers who design statewide assessment models, I always think back to my time working directly with children. I have the honor of challenging policymakers to consider why they are requiring an assessment and to what extent it will benefit or harm the students and families involved in the testing and reporting experience.
[E]ducation policy for outcomes-based accountability has shifted our focus away from the important developmental stages between birth and second grade. […] What does this lead to in the classroom? […] [T]eachers at a loss for how to close gaps quickly and effectively.”
I do this work because while I fully believe in the value of high-quality early childhood assessments, I also believe that we, as an education community, haven’t agreed on the value of those measures or what they should look like. We need to reach consensus.
The problem: Policy devalues high-quality early childhood measures
Part of the trouble with early childhood assessment in the US is that education policy for outcomes-based accountability has shifted our focus away from the important developmental stages between birth and second grade. Federal policies like the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) mandate standardized assessment in grades 3–8 while many state policies have an explicit focus on reading achievement at third grade.
[E]ducation policymakers rarely take up the critical issue of measuring and improving social, emotional, and academic development at school entry.”
What does this lead to in the classroom? Overwrought kindergarteners like the ones I used to work with. First graders who struggle with basic addition. Second graders who repeatedly stumble over irregular verbs. And teachers at a loss for how to close gaps quickly and effectively.
Regardless of these persisting challenges, education policymakers rarely take up the critical issue of measuring and improving social, emotional, and academic development at school entry. It also doesn’t account for the important developmental milestones before and after that key transitional time. More specifically, there are few high-quality measures of academic skill development before and at school entry, and there are practically no measures that follow a student’s development between kindergarten and the pivotal third grade year.
What have we learned so far?
Panelists at this fall’s research conference for the Association for Public Policy and Management (APPAM) shone light on some underlying problems affecting K–2 students. Among them was James Soland, who presented on initial evidence of trends in student’s academic achievement at school entry. Dr. Soland and other NWEA researchers found that:
- Students’ academic skills at school entry declined slightly from 2014 to 2017, with a larger decrease in mathematics
- Racial/ethnic achievement gaps at school entry narrowed significantly from 2010 to 2017
- More exploration is needed to understand what is causing the decrease in children’s skills at school entry
- Policy makers, education leaders, and researchers should collaborate to better understand, support, and evaluate programs tailored for children younger than 5
Critical next steps
In order to serve our youngest learners well, researchers and policymakers must consider the facets of early childcare systems in addition to measures of skills during early learning development. Doing so can dismantle harmful inequities facing our most vulnerable students. Here are just a few of many ways we can begin to do that: