Tests for kindergartners on their first days in school: Oregon piloting a system to screeen every pupil's readiness
- Published: September 26, 2012
Original Source | The Oregonian
By Betsy Hammond, Sunday September 23, 2012
Gilbert Park Elementary in Southeast Portland.
After watching his teacher summon a few other students one by one to answer a series of questions, Lolo stepped forward and asked to go next.
His teacher, Lindsay DeFazio, pointed to a capital M and asked the boy to name the letter. He did. Same with T.
But C wasn't as easy.
"Kuh," Lolo said.
"That's the sound," DeFazio said. "Do you know the name?"
"Cat?" Lolo asked.
She smiled warmly and ran him through many more letters and sounds, more than half of which he nailed.
How did he know so much on his first day in school?
"My mom," he said.
Students who start kindergarten equipped with certain skills and knowledge are far more likely to be strong readers in grade three and beyond. Key traits include basic counting skills, the ability to follow directions and take turns, and familiarity with letter sounds and simple words.
But Oregon has never had a reliable picture of how many 5-year-olds arrive primed to learn and how far behind the others are.
That will change next fall, when every entering kindergartner will be screened on letter names and sounds, basic counting and addition, and behaviors that lead to school success, such as paying attention and trying hard.
To ensure that goes smoothly, 16 schools, including Lolo's in the David Douglas school district, are piloting the screenings this year.
Oregon schools chief Rob Saxton says that solid knowledge about where every 5-year-old stands on key skills will be used to:
- Detect patterns of weakness in early-childhood programs, which should guide efforts to improve them
- Inform teachers and schools of every child who needs extra help.
- Shift a kindergarten's curriculum to address areas where most children show a lack of preparation.
"What great information to have," Saxton said.
Oregon's decision to measure every kindergartner is part of a national trend, said Jennifer Stedron, Colorado's director of early-childhood education who tracked every state's kindergarten assessment practices in her previous post at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
More states are assessing kindergarten readiness than just a few years ago, she said, and many are looking beyond reading readiness to measure students' social development, approach to learning and concentration skills.
"We really have increased our understanding that social-emotional skills are just as important if not more important" than early reading skills at helping students become academically strong in later grades, she said.
Oregon spent months deciding which tests or checklists to use.
The state's new Early Learning Council hired two teams of researchers, one at the University of Oregon and one at Oregon State University, to investigate many used in other states or in Oregon districts. They researched which measure skills that lead to strong academic achievement -- and which are practical for kindergarten teachers to give to every student.
the easyCBM series developed at UO; one math-skill test from easyCBM; and a research-proven 17-question checklist on student behavior.
The checklist is free and, this year, the tests are, too, though easyCBM was bought by Riverside Publishing, the testing arm of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Next year, the tests will cost $1 per child or less thanks to the UO connection.
Oregon teachers are giving kindergartners the tests during one-on-one sessions during the opening weeks of school. They're waiting several weeks before filling out the checklist to rate how frequently each child does things such as "observe rules and follow directions without requiring repeated reminders" and "return to unfinished tasks after interruption."
At this point, Oregon early-childhood leaders have no idea how high a student must score to be considered ready for school. That's something they hope to learn from this year's pilot, said Jerry Tindal, a UO researcher who helped develop the tests.
"We're going to find the cut scores that tend to be predictive of a group of students who will have problems later on," Tindal said. "The trick will be not just to identify them, but to remediate them, because if you don't pick up the skills for early reading early on, it's so tragic."
Megan McClelland, an associate professor at OSU's Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children & Families, led the OSU team that researched and recommended tests and checklists.
She is particularly excited that Oregon schools will be using the behavior checklist because new research, including studies she has led, show that so-called "executive function skills" -- focusing, paying attention, following multi-step directions, delaying gratification and suppressing some urges -- are extremely important to school success.
Some studies indicate that how well children perform those skills at age 5 or 6 is a better predictor than early reading or math skills of which students will be strong readers by grade three -- and even which students will graduate from college.
Research is showing those skills can be taught, she said. Students learn to focus and follow directions not by being lectured to, but through games and activities that allow them to practice focusing and following complex directions.
Card games, Simon Says and an opposite version of Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes all have been shown to help and are very doable for preschool and kindergarten teachers, she said.
Once Oregon kindergartens systematically screen for those skills, they are more likely to press their own teachers -- and parents and preschool teachers -- to instill them, she said.
"Can you stop and think about something before you do it when you are 4? There is a lot of evidence that if you can, you will do better in school. There are fun, engaging ways to help our kids exercise those skills and practice them, like strengthening a muscle in their brain."