Meisels and Fleming work to identify gaps in school readiness

Teachers struggle with it. Principals and district administrators get frustrated and defensive about it. Now, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has released a plan to do something about it.

“It” is the fact that children who enter kindergarten are all over the map, both in terms of their preparation and developmentally. Some have been preparing for their “first day of school” for a year or more, having attended full- or part-day preschool and learned everything from their alphabet to how to pay attention. Others have had little or no experience with letters or numbers and have trouble spending more than a few minutes sitting still.

Kids on a tire swing

Thus the assignment of the Kindergarten Readiness Stakeholder Committee, a statewide work group convened by ISBE whose leadership included Erikson president Samuel J. Meisels and Herr Research Center director Jana Fleming: to design a process that could provide schools and educational leaders with age-appropriate information about children’s developing knowledge and skills.

The result of the committee’s 14-month-long effort, the Illinois Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS), will help identify gaps in school readiness and guide classroom instruction, providing information to schools, districts and the state to support decision-making about resource allocations.

“At this point, Illinois lacks a comprehensive, statewide, research-based assessment process for kindergartners that gives a deep picture of children’s strengths and needs across communities. As a result, we do not have a commonly defined baseline for evaluating children’s progress in kindergarten and we have no data that, collected on an ongoing basis, can inform classroom instruction or help improve school readiness statewide. KIDS, if implemented, will change that,” says Meisels.

Collecting information on an “ongoing basis” is key, says Sara Slaughter, education program director for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which supported the committee and has for many years provided both funding and creative problem solving to improve educational outcomes in Illinois. “Adequately assessing whether Illinois’s kindergartners have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in school must involve more than administering a single assessment,” she says. “What is required is a comprehensive strategy, which also includes giving teachers information so they can meet their students’ needs.”

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois and another co-chair of the committee, says that part of the KIDS strategy includes measurements of a child’s abilities across multiple domains—cognitive, physical, developmental, social, and emotional. “This will enable educators and families to identify a child’s strengths and needs early, help decision-makers target resources, and facilitate better alignment of early childhood and K–12 systems.”

Study recommendations

The committee has recommended that the State Board of Education undertake a voluntary pilot of the assessment in select Illinois school districts during the 2012–13 school year before rolling it out across the state. While the committee’s scope did not include selecting a specific assessment instrument, it unanimously agreed on a set of goals and priorities for the board to use in implementing the assessment process, including:

  • promoting the success of every child by providing key adults—family members and teachers alike—with a clear picture of a child’s developing strengths across multiple domains;
  • guiding professional development for teachers from early childhood through third grade; and
  • supporting alignment of early childhood and elementary school systems.
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Read the full KIDS report
[PDF, 22 pg]

States such as Maryland and Colorado have put similar data sets to work in helping identify service gaps for young children, supporting teachers in how to best address early learners’ development, and gauging effectiveness of early childhood programs.

“We know that establishing and implementing effective learning programs and assessment processes—for infants, preschoolers, and kindergartners—that use data to improve learning outcomes is a smart investment of public funds, one that has a much higher economic rate of return than later remediation,” says Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and another of the group’s co-chairs. “By gathering a clear picture of what Illinois children know and what they can do as they enter school, we can more effectively create the integrated learning system our children need to be successful in school and life.”

The Kindergarten Readiness Stake­holder Committee was commissioned by Illinois State Board of Education superintendent Christopher Koch in early 2010.