Kindergartner readiness report a learning experience for all

August 27, 2018

A study released earlier this month by the Illinois State Board of Education gave people a look at how well prepared – or ill-prepared – kindergartners are for their first day of school.

What the study didn’t give, some local educators say, is the whole picture.

The Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) was released Aug. 13, and details kindergartner readiness. It’s based on teacher observations of students’ skills, knowledge and behaviors in three key development areas – social and emotional development, language and literacy development, and math – over the first 40 days of the school year.

Not all kindergartners were rated in the study. While the majority of districts did rate most of their students, a handful of districts measured less than half their students.

About 106,000 students, or 81 percent of kindergartners, were included in the study. Of those, only 24 percent were deemed ready in all three areas, 18 percent were ready in two, 17 percent were ready in one, and 42 percent were not ready in any development area.

In the Sauk Valley, results varied from a low in Morrison, where none of the 61 percent of kindergartners rated demonstrated readiness in all three areas, to a high in East Coloma-Nelson, where 97 percent of the kindergartners were rated and 66 percent were deemed fully prepared.

Dixon and Rock Falls scored lower than the state average. In Dixon, 89 percent of kindergartners were rated but only 8 percent scored ready in all 3 areas.

In Rock Falls District 13, 96 percent, were rated but only 17 percent were ready in all three areas.

Across the river, 48 percent of Sterling students were rated and 39 percent of them were deemed ready in all three developmental areas.

State Board of Education officials say survey isn’t intended to be the final word on kindergarten readiness, it’s just the beginning of the state’s efforts to increase the number of children ready for the first day of school. It’s the first time the state has taken such a snapshot, and schools are encouraged to take the survey again in the winter in spring to track students’ progress.

Also, the survey wasn’t intended to measure how schools are performing, but rather how much pre-K education and experiences kids have been exposed to.

Although the results give educators some basis for determining how ready students are, area educators say the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

“It’s an unfair statement to say that all these kids aren’t ready for kindergarten,” said Peggy Potthoff, a longtime Sterling kindergarten teacher.

Potthoff helped implement the KIDS study from its beginning in early 2010, when the ISBE partnered with the University of California-Berkeley and WestEd Center for Child and Family Studies – for which Potthoff worked – to develop and administer KIDS as a pilot program in select Illinois schools, starting in 2012.

“The goal was to gauge where the students are in learning so that we can alter our instruction to their needs,” Potthoff said.

However, one of the problems with gauging students’ readiness is the difference in districts’ curricula throughout the state.

At Dillon Elementary in Rock Falls, for example, the school recently implemented a play-based curriculum, inspired by the Elgin Area School District in Elgin.

“Play-based learning really allows us to see them in their natural play mode. Four and 5-year-olds learn through play.” Dillon kindergarten teacher Mindy Holesinger said.

Holesinger – a preschool teacher for 10 years with a background in play-based in education – said play-based learning allows teachers to observe what students can do as they explore a variety of skills at different levels.

But, she said, new curriculum can contribute to some inaccuracies in the KIDS report.

“This whole system is new to kindergarten teachers. As they become more aware of how to take observations and become more comfortable with the system, scores will reflect more accurate data,” Holesinger said.

As time goes on, Holesinger hopes teachers will become more in tune with the assessment, resulting in more accurate numbers.

She said other factors can contribute to the disparity in numbers among different school districts.

“Because of Rock Fall’s high poverty rates, our students lack experiences and opportunities that students from middle class families are accustomed to, and this impacts early learning,” Holesinger said.

For example, statewide there was a divide between students who received free/reduced price lunch — 16 percent of those students were ready in all three categories — versus those who do not, of which 30 percent were ready.

In Dixon and the Twin Cities, the disparity was similar. In Dixon, 3 percent of free/reduced prices lunch students were ready in all three areas versus 13 percent of students not getting the free/reduced price meal. In Rock Falls, it was 14 percent and 26 percent, and in Sterling, the difference was most notable: 20 percent versus 60 percent.

One major factor, Holesinger said, was the different levels of education students had prior to kindergarten.

“Some have gone through preschool – such as the Preschool for All program, Head Start program to home daycare – and some had no academic instruction background at all,” Holesinger said.

In districts such as Morrison – where none of the 61 percent rated were considered fully prepared – the low scores are more the result of safety precautions rather than a direct reflection of the student readiness.

Terri Lamb, Illinois State Board of Education’s early childhood principal consultant, said that in smaller districts, data is suppressed if there are fewer than 10 students in any one category to “protect student identity.”

But that explanation doesn’t apply to larger school districts such as Sterling – where only 48 percent of kindergartners were rated.

While Lamb couldn’t speak to the specifics of Sterling – and district officials there were unavailable for comment Monday – she did say “there are multiple factors that could result in not rating a student. If they’re transient, in between classes, teachers or schools, or if they were rated on the wrong factors or not enough factors that would nullify their rating since they can’t be validated,” Lamb said.

Although some of the numbers from the report may be startling, the report is just a first step in improving students’ readiness by investing in pre-K education.

State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith said the data “gives families, teachers, and communities a powerful tool to advocate for the resources and supports all children need.”

One way that is being accomplished is through professional development with kindergarten teachers.

According to Potthoff, REL Midwest and the state have teamed up for the next 4 years to support professional development for kindergarten teachers by supplementing them with materials and workshops to improve observation for the KIDS program.

“What I’m seeing is kindergarten teachers getting re-energized about what’s happening in their classrooms,” Potthoff said.

“There’s definitely more professional development happening to help with everything with KIDS and the play-based curriculum,” Holesinger said.

Additionally, the Kindergarten Transition Advisory Committee (KTAC) is working to identify ways to improve the transition into kindergarten.

The committee – comprised of education leaders – will submit its report and bring the findings before Gov Bruce. Rauner and the general assembly by Sept. 29.

Regardless of where schools fall in the study, educators like Holesinger and Potthoff have the same goal in mind: to better support education.

“It is up to us to use this data and support our students to bridge the gap,” Holesinger said. “We need to come together as an education community and find a way to provide the students the best programs that will prepare them for kindergarten.”

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