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State aims to test its youngest students

Not MCAS, but a first for kindergartners

Jennifer Gilleberto, a teacher at the Baldwin Early Learning Center in Brighton, performed an assessment on a kindergarten student. Jennifer Gilleberto, a teacher at the Baldwin Early Learning Center in Brighton, performed an assessment on a kindergarten student. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / October 2, 2011

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Massachusetts is developing plans to assess students as soon as they enter kindergarten to gauge how prepared they are for school, part of a proposal to overhaul early education after a decade that saw basic literacy skills for elementary-age children across the state barely improve at all.

But unlike the MCAS exams given to students in the upper grades, kindergartners - who are not expected to know how to read or write - would not be filling in bubble sheets or answering essay questions.

Instead, teachers would measure students’ early knowledge of literacy and math by carefully observing and questioning them during classroom activities, meticulously documenting their performance against a set of state standards, and including samples of their work. They will also take note of students’ social, cognitive, emotional, and physical development.

Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary, emphasized that the kindergarten readiness assessments, which are in the conceptual phase, “shouldn’t be mistaken for an early MCAS’’ and will not be used to determine who should enter kindergarten.

“It will be a more subtle and nuanced approach to assessing students,’’ Reville said. “The goal is to get a better sense of how students are doing, particularly in literacy.’’

The labor-intensive data collection, however, could be a tough sell to local districts and teachers, especially as budget cuts have pushed up class sizes, said Jason Sachs, director of early childhood education for Boston public schools. Boston, he said, already uses 14 assessments in kindergarten.

“We assess kindergarten students way too much,’’ said Sachs, who nevertheless added that he is a fan of assessing students by observation, the method the state is leaning toward.

State education officials hope that collecting this data statewide will help them measure the gap in skills among the more than 65,000 kindergarten students who enroll annually in public schools.

By answering some fundamental questions - such as “how many kindergartners can actually read?’’ or “how many do not know their ABCs?’’- the state says it can more effectively target money and create new programs for elementary schools with large numbers of students lagging in key skills.

The state can also use the data to shore up both public and private preschool programs, many of which base their instructional practices on state academic standards.

“I know assessments can be a hot-button issue,’’ said Amy O’Leary, campaign director for Early Education for All, an initiative of the Boston-based nonprofit Strategies for Children.

But she added, “What I would hope the assessment will give us is good information about where children are, so we are able to match resources to help those children.’’

Massachusetts is developing its kindergarten assessments as part of its proposal to seek $50 million from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which encourages efforts to promote kindergarten readiness. The administration has dedicated $500 million to the competition and will be funding only a handful of states.

To be competitive for the grant program, a state that lacks a kindergarten assessment program should launch one by the 2014-2015 school year.

State officials said the state should have good odds of winning funding because of its national leadership in overhauling early education. The state developed academic standards for early learning under the 1993 Education Reform Act, launched the nation’s first state department devoted to early education and child care, and has been working to provide universal access to high quality preschools.

For generations, state education officials have known that it is critical for children to start kindergarten ready to learn, and they have been keenly aware of a wide skills gap among students on the first day, even without a testing system in place.

The gap exists for a variety of reasons, such as uneven quality of preschool programs, the frequency of parents reading to their children at home, or simply because children by nature can grow and develop at widely different rates in the early years.

The effects of those differences don’t show up in statewide testing until the end of third grade, when students for the first time take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams, which each year have shown large and persistent gaps in achievement among students of different socio-economic backgrounds.

State education officials, as well as local schools, have struggled for the last decade to close that gap and to increase the number of students exiting third grade as proficient readers - an achievement level that typically indicates students should be well on their way to make it to high school graduation.

On this spring’s MCAS, 61 percent of third-graders across the state scored proficient or higher in English, about the same as a decade ago. And huge achievement gaps persisted: 69 percent of white and Asian students scored proficient or higher, while 37 percent of black students and 36 percent of Latino students scored at those levels.

“It’s too late to wait until third grade to see how students are doing,’’ said Sherri Killins, the state’s commissioner for early education and care.

Massachusetts is lagging the nation in creating a statewide kindergarten assessment program. Twenty-five states, including Connecticut, Vermont, and Maryland, already have such a system, while at least four other states are working to implement one, according to a report last year by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The states use different approaches to assessing kindergarten students. Many rely heavily on teacher observations, others prefer something more like standardized tests, except that they are given orally, and a few use a mix, said Catherine Scott-Little, associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

“Each type produces helpful data for teachers and policymakers,’’ Scott-Little said. “In an ideal world, if we had plenty of resources and teachers had time, a combination would provide the best picture of where children are.’’

Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing - a Jamaica Plain organization critical of standardized testing - said he is encouraged that the state is pursuing observation-based assessments for kindergartners. But he said he is concerned the state, because of shortages of money and time, could ultimately create a system , that collects data based on one observation instead of several over a period of time.

“The results could likely be more damaging than helpful,’’ Neill said. “The public ought to pay very careful attention to this.’’

Brighton’s Baldwin Early Learning Center, a part of the Boston public schools, has been doing observational assessments for eight years, and has helped teachers adjust instruction to meet the individual needs of their students, teachers, and administrators said last week.

For instance, an analysis of grade-level data revealed that boys had more difficulty transitioning from one activity to another.

Now, for a few minutes in between activities, teachers have students dance, perform yoga, or touch their heads, knees, and toes - giving students a break from the sit-down tasks of learning to read, write, and do math.

Baldwin teachers said they were in a better position to do these kinds of assessments than many other schools because they have only 18 students per class - some with severe special needs - and two or three assistant teachers, who also pitch in with the assessments.

“I think we are better teachers because of these assessments,’’ said Jennifer Gilleberto, but she added, “If you were a kindergarten teacher with 22 students and only one paraprofessional, it would be hard to do.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVaznis.