At a time when many of us are more acutely aware of the importance of teachers and school, a new statewide assessment shows that 44% of Virginia kindergartners enter school unprepared in at least one of four skill areas. The study, which analyzed data collected from every single school division in Virginia, illuminates ways to help teachers provide quality early education for all students.
In 2014, researchers from the Curry School of Education and Human Development’s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning developed the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program, or VKRP, an array of assessments that measures the skills a kindergartener needs to succeed.
The program measures students' foundational skills in math, self-regulation, and social skills and pairs this with the measure of literacy that is collected through PALS (Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening tool) to provide a complete picture of children’s skills. Designed to be teacher-friendly and easy to complete, it includes both direct assessments and teacher observations. In addition to the assessment data, VKRP also provides detailed reports and instructional resources for school leaders, teachers and families.
The first set of data, released in 2015, estimated that nearly 40 percent of children in Virginia entered kindergarten unprepared in at least one of four critical skill areas. After incremental annual growth, in 2018 a nearly $3 million investment from the General Assembly funded a mandated rollout of VKRP across all Virginia school divisions.
Last year, with 89 school divisions participating, VKRP suggested that 42% of kindergarteners were unprepared. Now, with data from all 132 school divisions in the Commonwealth and a final sample of almost 86,000 students, researchers report that 44% of kindergarteners are unprepared in at least one of the four areas.
More Data, More Insights
While the overall picture of kindergarten readiness is similar to reports from recent years, researchers say the expanded dataset provides a new level of insight into kindergarten readiness in Virginia.
“We can actually say, this is what the Commonwealth looks like in terms of readiness,” said Amanda Williford, associate professor at the Curry School and lead investigator of VKRP. “That’s a powerful message and one we didn’t have before.”
Plus, with access to data from every school division in the Commonwealth, Williford said the data allow for more nuanced, in-depth comparisons across school divisions. Every single school division can now compare its readiness data to similar divisions and the state at large, opening up new opportunities for divisions to learn from one another on how to best support their youngest learners before and during kindergarten.
With greater insight into kindergarten readiness comes greater understanding of how to best support early childhood teachers. Of course, Williford said, VKRP is not a comprehensive evaluation of every single skill a child needs to succeed in kindergarten. Nevertheless, the new results provide a valuable slice of information that opens up many opportunities to focus investments in early childhood education, including better supports and pay for early childhood teachers and further research.
"As a state leader, VKRP helps me understand and communicate how well we are giving every child, regardless of background, the opportunity to fulfill their potential," said Jenna Conway, Chief School Readiness Officer for the Virginia Department of Education. "We know that children who enter school with core social-emotional and academic skills are better poised to thrive, and we need to do more as a state to provide access to high quality early childhood. These results have helped drive additional investments in early childhood programming as well as resources for kindergarten teachers across Virginia."
Focus on Equity
Williford said the data highlight a need across the Commonwealth to support at-risk populations of students through high quality early childhood education – and to better support the teachers who are working to close readiness gaps.
The data are clear that certain populations don’t have equitable experiences prior to kindergarten. For example, fifty-six percent of children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are not ready for kindergarten. Among children identified as having a disability, that number rises to 66 percent. Readiness gaps are also apparent for black and Hispanic students as well as English learners.
Because early childhood is such a critical time for development, VKRP illuminates the gaps in early childhood education opportunities for young children and the training and supports that can help teachers improve equity among Virginia’s youngest learners.
Researchers want to be clear, however, that the VKRP readiness estimates should be used for summative purposes only. At the student level, the assessments do not measure a child’s potential for learning or future success in school. “It’s a snapshot of where a child is at a point in time across several important skills” Williford said. “That doesn’t define the child or prescribe what their school success is going to look like in kindergarten or later.” At the student level, the assessments are designed as tools the kindergarten teacher can use to target instruction to the student’s developmental level in those areas.
In other words, readiness gaps are not fixed and are not a function of the child – and the new depth of data is helpful at highlighting exactly where interventions could potentially have the biggest impact on equity.
Leah Walker, Director of Equity and Community Engagement for the Virginia Department of Education, explained educational equity as “defined by our inability to predict student outcomes based on race, gender, zip code, ability, socio economic status or the languages spoken at home” in a recent post for the VKRP blog.
Walker emphasized the VDOE’s focus on increasing education equity – and the value of measures like VKRP to accomplish these goals. “With the help of partners such as the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP), the Department’s focus on early learners is strategic and provides valuable data to inform our policymaking,” she wrote.