Chicago to measure kindergarten readiness

January 27, 2010

Preparing students for kindergarten is the paramount goal of preschool programs.This Spring, the district will roll out the most ambitious initiative yet to gauge whether preschools are succeeding at that task.


Preparing students for kindergarten is the paramount goal of preschool
programs. This Spring, the district will roll out the most ambitious
initiative yet to gauge whether preschools are succeeding at that task.

CPS will pilot a draft kindergarten readiness measurement tool this spring, says Karen Carradine, director of assessment and accountability for the CPS Office of Early Childhood. The new assessment will mark the first time the district will formally measure students’ school readiness.

Assessment will be done by teachers observing their students over time; the tool is not a standardized test, which some early childhood experts say is not appropriate for young children.

The tool will be used with all 4-year-old preschoolers who will be moving to kindergarten in the fall.

The district will survey kindergarten teachers this fall “to ascertain that they look for the same type of skill sets” that the tool measures, Carradine says. For example, Carradine says, the tool may measure students’ understanding of rhymes. Can they identify which words rhyme? Do they initiate the use of rhyming words themselves, or only when prompted by a teacher?

“We want to make sure preschool is offering the right set of predecessor skills that are going to be necessary in kindergarten,” Carradine adds.

Ultimately, the goal is to align preschool and kindergarten curricula so that gains in preschool aren’t lost over time.

The new tool is being rolled out at a critical time for one of the nation’s largest preschool programs, Head Start, which serves nearly a million children nationwide and 16,500 in Chicago. Recently, a major study found that the program’s gains fade quickly once students enter school—a finding that could put Head Start and other preschool efforts in jeopardy. 

Initially, children who attended Head Start scored higher on school readiness measures than students in a control group, according to the study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Researchers examined performance of youngsters who attended the program in the 2002-03 school year.

At the end of kindergarten and 1st grade, Head Start graduates were nearly indistinguishable from other students on many measures.

Some experts question the study’s results, noting that kindergarteners and 1st-graders aren’t ready to take or be judged by standardized tests.

Others note that in isolation, Head Start can’t counteract other factors, such as poorly-performing elementary schools, that come into play.

“We lose control when they get into kindergarten and 1st grade,” says Adrienne M. Stewart, citywide program manager for CPS Head Start programs.

Carradine adds that without alignment of curricula, the concept measuring long-term gains from a short-term program can be problematic.

“I think Head Start is responsible for when they have the kids in front of them,” she says. “(After that), anything that’s not nurtured can fade.”

The kindergarten readiness tool developed by CPS might also help answer the question of whether half-day programs like Head Start are intensive enough to prepare students for school.

The limited amount of programming provided to Head Start students – just twelve hours a week of instruction – could be one reason for its lack of lasting gains, says Gillian McNamee, the Erikson Institute’s director of teacher education.

 

“It’s like taking a child who is very thin, giving them saltines once a day, and (asking for) improvement in diet and overall health,” she says. “It is not going to counterbalance all of the challenges children and families have.”

It’s still unclear how the Head Start Impact Study will affect public perception of government-funded early childhood programs, which have gained acceptance in recent years.

“The data and the tools are not designed to give us that kind of cut-and-dried verdict,” McNamee says. “In our society, the pendulum can go either way: Head Start doesn’t work, or Head Start and Preschool for All are very important building blocks. We see both sides, in both the scholarship and the public debate.”