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Most Schools Use Kindergarten Entry Assessments; Do They Help?

Kindergarten entry assessments—quick tests that are given to incoming students and are intended to help teachers tailor their instruction to a child's specific needs—are used in close to three-quarters of the nation's public schools. 

But using those tests doesn't appear to have a significant impact on how well a student is reading or doing math in the spring of the kindergarten year, raising the question of whether such tests are serving their intended purpose. 

These findings are part of a federally funded report from the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands, "How Kindergarten Entry Assessments are Used in Public Schools and How They Correlate with Spring Assessments." There are 10 regional educational laboratories, and the Northeast & Islands branch covers six New England states, New York, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The researchers used a longitudinal study of data gathered on children who started school in the 2010-11 school year, and the schools those children attended. At that time, 73 percent of public schools that offered kindergarten said they gave incoming students these entry tests. That percentage could be even higher now, because the U.S. Department of Education has been nudging states to create or improve entry assessments with the goal of getting children off to a strong academic start. In 2013, for example, the Education Department distributed $15 million to several states to help them create or improve their kindergarten entry tests

The researchers found that of the schools that were using these tests, the vast majority—93 percent—said they were doing so in order to "individualize instruction." Forty-one percent used them to help create class assignments, nearly a quarter of schools reported using them to advise parents on delaying kindergarten entry, and 16 percent used them as screening tools for children who were younger than the kindergarten cutoff. 

And, despite saying that the intent of the tests is to improve instruction, using them didn't connect to a child's academic performance. 

For all their widespread use, these readiness tests are not universally supported. One concern is that they'll could be used to make the case to delay a child's entry into kindergarten even if the child meets the age cutoff, which my colleague Catherine Gewertz wrote about last year. Twenty-four percent of schools reported using the tests to support holding a child out of school for a year.

So what to make of this? The authors of the report say that states must be careful as they roll out these systems that teachers understand how to administer them correctly and to interpret the results. 

"In theory the impact of kindergarten entry assessments on student achievement depends on several components working together successfully," the report said. Those components include reliable tests, administered correctly, by teachers who can understand the results and make quick adjustments on the fly when necessary.

"In practice, schools operate at varying levels of quality in each link in this chain," the authors wrote.

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