Screening the screenings

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 20, 2012 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara:

I have a question about kindergarten screening that I don't recall seeing you answer in the past (I'll give you an early start on the typical late summer, early fall rush of school questions!).

My 5-year-old daughter will be starting kindergarten in the fall. She just had her kindergarten screening using DIAL-4. Based on her performance, she scored borderline in the concepts section (mostly numbers, shapes etc) and based on my responses to a survey, she scored borderline on self-help. By borderline, I mean her score was the lowest in the range of "ok", 1 point lower and she would have been in the potential for delay category. The things that caused her to score borderline in concepts are things that I know she can do (count to more than 10, recognize a square, etc). In fact, as we were leaving the school and without any prompting from me, she counted to 20 (missing, as usual, 15). Her preschool (which she has attended for 2 years, 3 full days a week) has documented that she can recognize shapes.

The items that resulted in a borderline score for self-help included brushing her own hair and teeth, pouring milk into a cereal bowl on her own, picking up her own toys, etc. My rationale for my answers in self-help include that her hair is long and if she brushed it, it would either never get done or I would be cutting out the hair brush. I interpreted the teeth question as she is responsible for her own brushing so I answered rarely or never. Our approach is that she does "her part" and then mommy or daddy does "their part". We buy gallons of milk so they are too big for her to pour without spilling and unless prompted, she never picks up her toys on her own. If we declare it is clean up time or I tell her that to move onto the next activity, we have to pick up game or puzzle pieces, then she will clean up, but she doesn't do it on her own. There weren't any questions on getting herself dressed, putting on her own coat, washing hands, eating with utensils, etc. All of which she can do and the large majority of the time does on her own. Of course, taking into account the occasional day when she just feels like being obstinate or we are running late...

We had been away for the weekend and she was not her usual self that morning. The environment and the people were new to her. Parents had to sit out in the hallway. I don't mention these things as excuses, but wonder if/how the testing takes factors like these into account.

I question the validity of the borderline scores, especially the self-help category. What is the intent of these screening tools? What do these tests really predict? How do schools use these scores? Are borderline scores something that should concern me? What, if anything, should I do based on these results? What should I do, if anything, about these results when she actually starts kindergarten this fall?

Thanks for any insight you can provide. I value your advice and read your blog daily.

From: MMR, Medford, MA


Dear MMR,

Relax. Really.

Tests like these are tools, a way to assess large numbers of children in a quick and efficient manner. Independent research shows Dial-4 tests have "high predictive validity." In other words, when screening a lot of children, they are reliable enough in predicting success. That doesn't mean they are always right. In fact, I think it's helpful to know what DIAL stands for: Developmental Indicators for the Assessment of Learning. Those are my italics. The publisher's website says the scores are meant to "help predict academic success." Again, my italics.

It sounds like when you answered the questions, you were conservative, bending over backwards, perhaps, in an effort to be truthful. What's more, children have good days and bad days and, no, I don't think that gets factored in to the scores. I can speak from personal anecdotal experience about kindergarten screening results that have surprised parents and preschool teachers; about parents getting their child home to discover he or she was running a slight fever or had a tummy ache, or was intimidated by the process. I can tell you that some of those same kids graduated from top-notch universities.

Should you be concerned about "borderline" scores? Sure, meaning that you're going to keep an eye on your child and how she does, whether she struggles socially or emotionally or academically. But something tells me, you're a parent who would be doing that no matter what.

Should you be doing something about the "borderline" scores? Absolutely. Talk to your child's preschool teachers. As I've said in this space many times, I place a whole lot more value on their opinions than I do on screening test results. Are they worried about your daughter going to kindergarten? Ask them, and take it from there.

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9 comments so far...
  1. As a first grade teacher who has participated in kindergarten screenings:

    Don't worry about it.

    There are 1,000 factors that play into every kid's development, and there are 1,000 factors that play into every kid's testing environment. Your child's kindergarten teacher will see that she can count (a missing number is TOTALLY developmentally normal) and will see that she cleans up when prompted. The tool is NOT intended to 'track' your daughter as 'low-' or 'high-performing,' rather to give the teacher a cursory view of the child. It's quite difficult to look into the faces of 25 nervous children on the first day of school and assuage their fears and get them excited for school and remember each name and remember their parents' names and teach them to use the classroom materials in an orderly way and get them to lunch on time...You get the picture! It's just a snapshot to give us a little background. I assure you that we quickly form our own complete picture of the child based on FAR more than a standardized test on which the child may perform higher by guessing or lower from nerves or distraction.

    You know what skills your child has, and so do her preschool teachers. Reinforce the good (Counting! Next step: Can she count 20 objects?), work on the areas of need (What can you find in the grocery store that's a square? What can you find in the house? Let's name the shapes of all the signs we drive by!), and spend lots of time praising her for how smart she is. Read, read, read for fun: Bedtime stories, mid-day chill-out stories, let her pick books from the library to look at and tell the story from the pictures. Chat about what you're reading (How does she feel right now? Where do you think he's going? Here, you look at the pictures and tell ME the story!)

    Good luck! She's lucky to have you in her corner :)

    Posted by HappyTeacher April 20, 12 08:40 AM
  1. It's about 4.5 months before she goes to Kindergarten, so she will continue to develop during that time. Also, _you_ could help her start to do some of the things that she is borderline on at this point. For example, you could pour milk into a smaller container so she could learn to put it on her cereal herself. And you could not make a big deal if she spills it, too, just teach her how to clean it up.

    If she doesn't brush her teeth to _your_ satisfaction, make her brush again. Cut her hair so she can take care of it herself. It will grow again your know, and letting her do it herself will take pressure off your relationship. Frankly you sound a bit like a mother who does not encourage her to be independent because it's too much trouble for you. I see this all the time in my work with girls, girls aged 18 who can't cut their own food.

    What about her preschool? Do they teach things like pouring, cleaning, cutting, etc? When my daughter was in preschool, the children poured the juice, used an apple cutter to cut the apples for snack, set the table, etc. Doing these tasks are part of the curriculum in a Montessori or Waldorf pre-school, so we know children can do them. Think of how much shape recognition is inherent in these kind of tasks - rectangular place mats, circular plates, cutting cheese in triangles, etc.

    Maybe she needs some one-on-one time with an adult to learn these things. If she can't be with you over the summer, is there a grandma or someone who could help her? Someone who is concerned with her only, and who can teach her these things without the time pressures of getting out the door in the the morning that you seem to have?

    Posted by Dixie Lee April 20, 12 09:03 AM
  1. Another thought about these screening tests. (We have not had this one as my daughter is only 1.5, but we had an Early Intervention screening using the Battelle Developmental Inventory, so a similar idea.)

    I have noticed that there are things on these that are by NO means universal development things. In your example, the pouring the milk. In our "test", there was drinking from an open cup. Our daughter can only drink from an open cup with a lot of assistance, but she goes to daycare and sippy cups are required. Other people we know went right to an open cup at 9 months old so obviously the kid is better at it because she practices all the time.
    So some of these things will vary depending on what you emphasize and/or allow in your family. These assessments can definitely worry us, but try not to let it bother you -- your child probably has many strengths that were not included in this assessment.

    Posted by medfordtoo April 20, 12 09:57 AM
  1. This girl is an only child, right? I'm not saying that giving her too much attention is necessarily bad, but maybe you could consider taking up a hobby?

    Posted by geocool April 20, 12 10:20 AM
  1. Not sure if this is reassuring or not, but one of the things our school department does when a student graduates from high school is send home a "permanent record" so to speak which included test scores, letters my daughter wrote at various points to her future self, some papers various teachers thought were good and finally, the kindergarden screening test results. Wasn't I surprised to see the 5 sided triangle she drew; the stick person without a body (not developmentally appropriate at that point) and the analogy she was asked and got wrong (a brother is to a boy as a sister is to a (fill in the blank)--my daughter said sister, not once, but 3 times). She went on to be an excellent student, got advanced on several MCAS tests, took lots of honors and a couple of AP classes, did well on the SATs, got into a great college and then got asked to be in the honors college there because of her outstanding GPA.

    I don't know if this anxiety around this testing is because of what I call the "educationalization" of kindergarden. I know most kids are ready for more than circle time, snacks, and recess when they start kindergarden know, but it feels like its very easy to feel like their future is at stake if they flub a little on an assessment test. My daughter could not even read when she started first grade, which her teacher was perfectly normal. Now it feels like the pressure is on and I really feel badly for parents today as they worry about what are probably perfectly age appropriate children.

    I think I would add to Barbara's "predictor of success" does not equal "predictor of failure". Scoring borderline today does not mean she won't achieve what she is supposed to at this age within a few weeks or month and be perfectly on target. Its also NOT a predictor of intelligence or determination!

    Plus, if most parents were honest, they'd say they have to brush their kids teeth until they were teenagers! I occasionally still have to remind mine!!


    Posted by ash April 20, 12 10:38 AM
  1. Don't worry about it, MMR...

    First, these are SCREENING tests. They are specifically designed to be sensitive to possible concerns. They aren't a complete assessment. Your daughter passed -- which means that even a sensitive screening test doesn't suggest anything wrong with her.

    Second, there is (or should be) legitimate disagreement over what appropriate "self-help" skills are for a given age. We brushed our kids teeth through first or second grade, because they weren't yet ready to do it properly on their own. (They brushed, then we brushed.) Yet our kids have learned to handle kitchen knives to cut vegetables, beginning in kindergarten. A child with long hair may take longer to learn to brush properly than a child with short hair. The suggestion above that you cut her hair so that she can pass a test is ridiculous!

    Finally, you are the parent. You need to let your child learn and explore for herself, but you also need to decide when she is ready for each step. Don't let some pushy educator try to tell you otherwise!

    Posted by TF April 22, 12 10:17 AM
  1. Interesting, both of my children were on IEP's starting in pre-school so I missed this step. It sounds to me like the Mom is on top of it.

    Posted by DHT April 22, 12 09:12 PM
  1. Thanks for all the great feedback and I especially appreciate the supportive comments. Happy teacher - thanks for the different ideas on how to incorporate these things into daily life and also for giving your perspective as a teacher. It makes complete sense, I wish the schools would help us to understand where the tests fit in. Ash - thanks so much for the perspective that "predictors of success dont necessarily mean predictors of failure". I hadn't thought of it that way and it is really helpful to do so. Dixie Lee - I see where I may sound like it is too much work for me to help her develop independence. I admit that I have to work hard on not just doing things because it is easier for me to do them that let her work it out. She can "cut" her own food, takes her plate to the sink when she is done, etc.

    For the record, I have 2 children, she is my oldest so all of this screening and K expectations are new to me. I'd love to take up a hobby, but honestly working part-time outside of the home, managing a home, parenting 2 children and trying to participate in my marriage leave little time for hobbies.

    Posted by MMR (letter writer) April 23, 12 10:11 AM
  1. MMR: She sounds like a normal 5 year old to me (in fact, she sounds a bit like me at that age!).

    Posted by m April 23, 12 04:52 PM
 
9 comments so far...
  1. As a first grade teacher who has participated in kindergarten screenings:

    Don't worry about it.

    There are 1,000 factors that play into every kid's development, and there are 1,000 factors that play into every kid's testing environment. Your child's kindergarten teacher will see that she can count (a missing number is TOTALLY developmentally normal) and will see that she cleans up when prompted. The tool is NOT intended to 'track' your daughter as 'low-' or 'high-performing,' rather to give the teacher a cursory view of the child. It's quite difficult to look into the faces of 25 nervous children on the first day of school and assuage their fears and get them excited for school and remember each name and remember their parents' names and teach them to use the classroom materials in an orderly way and get them to lunch on time...You get the picture! It's just a snapshot to give us a little background. I assure you that we quickly form our own complete picture of the child based on FAR more than a standardized test on which the child may perform higher by guessing or lower from nerves or distraction.

    You know what skills your child has, and so do her preschool teachers. Reinforce the good (Counting! Next step: Can she count 20 objects?), work on the areas of need (What can you find in the grocery store that's a square? What can you find in the house? Let's name the shapes of all the signs we drive by!), and spend lots of time praising her for how smart she is. Read, read, read for fun: Bedtime stories, mid-day chill-out stories, let her pick books from the library to look at and tell the story from the pictures. Chat about what you're reading (How does she feel right now? Where do you think he's going? Here, you look at the pictures and tell ME the story!)

    Good luck! She's lucky to have you in her corner :)

    Posted by HappyTeacher April 20, 12 08:40 AM
  1. It's about 4.5 months before she goes to Kindergarten, so she will continue to develop during that time. Also, _you_ could help her start to do some of the things that she is borderline on at this point. For example, you could pour milk into a smaller container so she could learn to put it on her cereal herself. And you could not make a big deal if she spills it, too, just teach her how to clean it up.

    If she doesn't brush her teeth to _your_ satisfaction, make her brush again. Cut her hair so she can take care of it herself. It will grow again your know, and letting her do it herself will take pressure off your relationship. Frankly you sound a bit like a mother who does not encourage her to be independent because it's too much trouble for you. I see this all the time in my work with girls, girls aged 18 who can't cut their own food.

    What about her preschool? Do they teach things like pouring, cleaning, cutting, etc? When my daughter was in preschool, the children poured the juice, used an apple cutter to cut the apples for snack, set the table, etc. Doing these tasks are part of the curriculum in a Montessori or Waldorf pre-school, so we know children can do them. Think of how much shape recognition is inherent in these kind of tasks - rectangular place mats, circular plates, cutting cheese in triangles, etc.

    Maybe she needs some one-on-one time with an adult to learn these things. If she can't be with you over the summer, is there a grandma or someone who could help her? Someone who is concerned with her only, and who can teach her these things without the time pressures of getting out the door in the the morning that you seem to have?

    Posted by Dixie Lee April 20, 12 09:03 AM
  1. Another thought about these screening tests. (We have not had this one as my daughter is only 1.5, but we had an Early Intervention screening using the Battelle Developmental Inventory, so a similar idea.)

    I have noticed that there are things on these that are by NO means universal development things. In your example, the pouring the milk. In our "test", there was drinking from an open cup. Our daughter can only drink from an open cup with a lot of assistance, but she goes to daycare and sippy cups are required. Other people we know went right to an open cup at 9 months old so obviously the kid is better at it because she practices all the time.
    So some of these things will vary depending on what you emphasize and/or allow in your family. These assessments can definitely worry us, but try not to let it bother you -- your child probably has many strengths that were not included in this assessment.

    Posted by medfordtoo April 20, 12 09:57 AM
  1. This girl is an only child, right? I'm not saying that giving her too much attention is necessarily bad, but maybe you could consider taking up a hobby?

    Posted by geocool April 20, 12 10:20 AM
  1. Not sure if this is reassuring or not, but one of the things our school department does when a student graduates from high school is send home a "permanent record" so to speak which included test scores, letters my daughter wrote at various points to her future self, some papers various teachers thought were good and finally, the kindergarden screening test results. Wasn't I surprised to see the 5 sided triangle she drew; the stick person without a body (not developmentally appropriate at that point) and the analogy she was asked and got wrong (a brother is to a boy as a sister is to a (fill in the blank)--my daughter said sister, not once, but 3 times). She went on to be an excellent student, got advanced on several MCAS tests, took lots of honors and a couple of AP classes, did well on the SATs, got into a great college and then got asked to be in the honors college there because of her outstanding GPA.

    I don't know if this anxiety around this testing is because of what I call the "educationalization" of kindergarden. I know most kids are ready for more than circle time, snacks, and recess when they start kindergarden know, but it feels like its very easy to feel like their future is at stake if they flub a little on an assessment test. My daughter could not even read when she started first grade, which her teacher was perfectly normal. Now it feels like the pressure is on and I really feel badly for parents today as they worry about what are probably perfectly age appropriate children.

    I think I would add to Barbara's "predictor of success" does not equal "predictor of failure". Scoring borderline today does not mean she won't achieve what she is supposed to at this age within a few weeks or month and be perfectly on target. Its also NOT a predictor of intelligence or determination!

    Plus, if most parents were honest, they'd say they have to brush their kids teeth until they were teenagers! I occasionally still have to remind mine!!


    Posted by ash April 20, 12 10:38 AM
  1. Don't worry about it, MMR...

    First, these are SCREENING tests. They are specifically designed to be sensitive to possible concerns. They aren't a complete assessment. Your daughter passed -- which means that even a sensitive screening test doesn't suggest anything wrong with her.

    Second, there is (or should be) legitimate disagreement over what appropriate "self-help" skills are for a given age. We brushed our kids teeth through first or second grade, because they weren't yet ready to do it properly on their own. (They brushed, then we brushed.) Yet our kids have learned to handle kitchen knives to cut vegetables, beginning in kindergarten. A child with long hair may take longer to learn to brush properly than a child with short hair. The suggestion above that you cut her hair so that she can pass a test is ridiculous!

    Finally, you are the parent. You need to let your child learn and explore for herself, but you also need to decide when she is ready for each step. Don't let some pushy educator try to tell you otherwise!

    Posted by TF April 22, 12 10:17 AM
  1. Interesting, both of my children were on IEP's starting in pre-school so I missed this step. It sounds to me like the Mom is on top of it.

    Posted by DHT April 22, 12 09:12 PM
  1. Thanks for all the great feedback and I especially appreciate the supportive comments. Happy teacher - thanks for the different ideas on how to incorporate these things into daily life and also for giving your perspective as a teacher. It makes complete sense, I wish the schools would help us to understand where the tests fit in. Ash - thanks so much for the perspective that "predictors of success dont necessarily mean predictors of failure". I hadn't thought of it that way and it is really helpful to do so. Dixie Lee - I see where I may sound like it is too much work for me to help her develop independence. I admit that I have to work hard on not just doing things because it is easier for me to do them that let her work it out. She can "cut" her own food, takes her plate to the sink when she is done, etc.

    For the record, I have 2 children, she is my oldest so all of this screening and K expectations are new to me. I'd love to take up a hobby, but honestly working part-time outside of the home, managing a home, parenting 2 children and trying to participate in my marriage leave little time for hobbies.

    Posted by MMR (letter writer) April 23, 12 10:11 AM
  1. MMR: She sounds like a normal 5 year old to me (in fact, she sounds a bit like me at that age!).

    Posted by m April 23, 12 04:52 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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