#EduFridayFive: A Conversation on Academic Skills at Kindergarten Entry with Christine Pitts

Last month a team of researchers published a new working paper looking at how the academic skills of entering kindergartners has changed over time. I reached out to one of the co-authors, Christine Pitts, a Research Scientist and Policy Advisor at NWEA, to answer five short questions about the project. Read her answers below:

How would you describe this project in 200 words or less?

Research shows that early math and reading skills are a strong predictor of future achievement. So, it is not surprising that state and local policymakers often use early childhood initiatives, albeit usually disjointed from K12 systems, to improve learning outcomes. Today, we are challenged because the most recent wave of nationally representative data on academic readiness at school entry, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), was collected during the 2010-11 school year. However, there has been a myriad of changes in U.S. policy and society since then that likely affected children and the contexts attributing to their achievement upon kindergarten entry. The findings in this study provide initial evidence of trends in student’s academic achievement at school entry since the end of the ECLS-K dataset. While the findings are mixed and require additional exploration, there are three big takeaways:

  1. Kids entering kindergarten after 2014 performed slightly worse on math and reading standardized assessments than those who entered kindergarten during or before 2014.
  2. Racial/ ethnic and school poverty achievement gaps at school entry narrowed significantly, but modestly, from 2010-2017; with the most narrowing occurring in recent years.
  3. There was no relationship between district preschool enrollment and trends in achievement at school entry across time.

What would most people miss about this project if they only read the headline? 

While the findings of this study are powerful because they show an illustrative view of students’ academic trends over the last decade, we are aware that this is one descriptive slice of a broader, more comprehensive set of student outcomes with a host of related factors. Our hope is that after readers digest the big takeaways from this work, namely that kindergarteners in 2017 have slightly lower math and reading skills than in 2010, but inequalities by race/ethnicity and poverty have decreased, they will be asking questions like why, how, and what does this mean? As such, we are interested in braiding this line of inquiry with other pragmatic research agendas informing education leaders across the nation. We want our research and policy colleagues to see these findings as an invitation to partner on future studies where we can investigate the contexts and mechanisms underlying these downward trends and what this means for policymakers setting up the next decade of incoming kindergartners in America.

What compelled you to do this work? 

Early childhood is an incredibly important developmental period, but due to few well-developed measures of skills before and at school entry, it is hard to systematically examine how well different early childhood experiences prepare students for K12 achievement. My children each attended different preschool settings (e.g. in-home, private). Now that my oldest two are taking standardized assessments in the K12 system, we can see some of the differences in their academic development that may be attributable to their different preschool experiences. It is obvious to me from these data and my own experience in research and evaluation that our schools require standardized measures of early learning development to evaluate the impact of different early childhood experiences. But, during this past legislative session in Oregon a bill was introduced, the Too Young to Test bill, that aimed to remove all standardized assessments before third grade. This bill illuminated the common misconception and over-generalization that tests are always bad. Concurrently, we were discussing the utility of interim data collected at the beginning of kindergarten throughout the school year well into students’ elementary and middle school years for exploring broad trends on student achievement at school entry. It was clear that this study may provide an example about the need for high-quality measures of skills that span the ages of school entry and beyond.

What would a smart critic say about it, and how would you respond? 

Two explicit critiques have come up since presenting this study to our peer network. First, folks challenge us on the topic of testing early learners, especially upon their first experiences with the K-12 system. While there are a lot of important early skills that we did not examine, like self-regulation and social skills, the measure we used does a pretty good job of accommodating early learners through warm-up questions, audio instructions, and a visual interface designed to engage the youngest students. The other central criticism is that we have a non-random sample of the U.S. population that changed over time. Each year the cohort grew in size and became more racially/ ethnically diverse. We used a weighting procedure to (a) correct for the non-random sampling of those using our test and (b) yearly national proportions in school racial/ethnic breakdown, urbanicity, FRPL, and district socioeconomic measures. It is important to understand that even if our sample does not perfectly mirror the national population of US kindergarteners, it reflects a substantial portion of US kindergarteners, approximately one in every 10 kindergarten students between 2014 and 2017.

Other than this project, what are you most excited about right now?

Well, to be honest, I used to be an elementary school teacher and fall-time always makes me come alive with so many exciting changes. My kids are getting older and facing new challenges in school, ballots come out and we get to vote on exciting local initiatives, and it is noteworthy that we are embarking on a new strategic vision for our policy and advocacy work at NWEA. Our efforts will align key organizational priorities around equity and evidence-based policy. For example, I have the privilege of working strategically with our research team to explore how policy mechanisms can be highlighted within the research evidence that they promote through academic channels. For the current study, we crafted a research brief with key next steps for policymakers who are trying to evaluate the mechanisms underlying these descriptive trends at school entry. Other areas under study in our research department include summer learning loss and measuring social and emotional skill development, each lending themselves nicely to relevant national policy discussions. I encourage anyone interested to take a look at our research centers and explore research briefs on a variety of other topics.

–Guest post by Chad Aldeman