Kindergarten entry assessments are becoming more common in the United States. In 2011, the federal government’s Race to the Top program created grants to help state develop these assessments. By 2014, half of all states required schools to perform kindergarten entry assessments. And by 2016, 73% of all public schools in the nation used some type of assessment at kindergarten entry.
The Early Education Research Alliance used longitudinal data from over 18,000 students who attended kindergarten in the 2010-11 school year and administrator surveys from the 1,130 different public schools they attended to take a snapshot of how kindergarten entry assessments are used in the United States and of their effectiveness.
What are Kindergarten Entry Assessments?
Kindergarten entry assessments are usually administered right before, or during the first few months of, a child’s entry into kindergarten. The assessments are used for a variety of purposes. Schools use them to determine class placement, screen for learning disabilities, individualize instruction and/or gather baseline data for what the group knows going into the school year. Though the Education Department and early childhood advocacy groups caution against using the assessments as “readiness” instruments to bar or delay entry into kindergarten, the tests can be misused.
The most common use administrators gave for the assessments was individualizing instruction. Teachers gather information meant to help them understand what each child’s skills in order to tailored instruction to each individual child’s needs. In theory, this individualized instruction should help each child achieve greater gains. However, the authors found that kindergarten entry assessments are not correlated with student outcomes. Children who had been through an entry assessment did not make greater gains in math and reading than those who had not.
Why Do the Assessments Have Limited Success?
There is very little standardization of assessments. As of 2014, only seven states mandated which assessments schools must use. For the most part, districts and schools develop their own assessments and their own stated purposes for the assessments. Schools may measure different things, may use different assessments and may use those assessments for different purposes.
In an advisory statement to state boards of education on the use of kindergarten assessments, the National Association for Early Childhood Education (NAEYC) warns that one test may not be useful for all the varied purposes schools use them for. For example, a kindergarten entry assessment meant to broadly determine what children know across a variety of domains may not provide teachers with enough information to individualize instruction. Likewise, a test designed to screen for learning disabilities would not provide administrators with baseline data to measure growth over the course of the year.
The NAEYC also warn that “a one-time snapshot of a child entering a kindergarten classroom cannot capture all of the cumulative experiences in programs, in the home, and in the community of a young child from birth to that day in kindergarten.”
In other words, the assessment is not a reflection of parenting or of the preschool program child came from, nor does it tell a teacher everything that a child knows and is capable of.
What Should Parents Know about Kindergarten Assessments?
First and foremost, parents should be informed about the assessments and their stated purpose. The federal government and all early childhood advocacy groups agree that tests should never be used to deny or delay kindergarten entry for children. Parents have the right to send children of the appropriate age to kindergarten, and good schools adjust their instruction to be developmentally appropriate.
Secondly, the NAEYC stresses the importance of looking at the whole child. While pre-literacy and early math skills are important, so are social/emotional skills and physical development.
Listening, cooperating, expressing needs, and gripping a pencil and scissors are just as important as knowing letter sounds and counting. Any kindergarten entry assessment should cover a wide range of domains. The best information is also gleaned when children are assessed in their first language. If it is not possible to assess a child in his or her home language, it should be noted that these are the child’s skills in English. The child may be capable of different things in his or her first language.
Many schools invite children to visit the school in August, before the school year starts, to do the kindergarten entry assessment. However, given the limited documented success in using the assessments for class placement and the fact that the age of the children makes accurate assessment difficult if they are uncomfortable with people they do not know, assessments are ideally done a few weeks into the school year. When the child is comfortable with the setting, and the person giving the assessment, the test will more accurately represent their capabilities.
Lastly, parents should know that assessments used to inform instruction usually do not require parental consent. However, assessments used for other purposes, such as measuring curriculum effectiveness or comparing groups of students over time, may require consent depending on state law. Consent may also be required if a child’s data is shared among districts or if it is stored over time for longitudinal collection.
Kindergarten Assessments Not Yet Matching Their Promised Goals
Kindergarten entry assessments hold promise for individualizing instruction, early detection of learning disabilities and informing teachers and administrators of the efficacy of curricula. However, the actual practice has so far been far from successful. As the practice becomes more common, parents, teachers and education departments need to work together to make sure the right assessments are used for the best outcomes for young children.