A recent state assessment of kindergarten students found that few reach benchmarks for literacy and math

by: KEVIN SPERL - Rylee Donnelly works in her reading curriculum activity book in Karen Bryant's kindergarten class at Crooked River Elementary.

Results from the state's inaugural Oregon Kindergarten Assessment (OKA) survey are in and, according to a statement from Gov. John Kitzhaber, the results are “startling” and show a “scattershot approach to early learning.”

Intended to measure a student’s aptitude for learning upon entry into kindergarten, the assessment found that 33 percent identified five or fewer letters of the alphabet, while another 14 percent failed to name a single letter. In math, students correctly answered only slightly better than 50 percent of addition, subtraction, pattern, and number recognition problems.

The study, administered in the fall of 2013, involved over 95 percent of the state's entering kindergarteners.

Forty thousand students, including 228 from Crook County, were tested in areas of literacy, math, social-emotional development, approaches to learning, and self-regulation in the classroom.

“Today’s results validate our focus on reforming Oregon’s historically scattershot approach to early learning,” said Kitzhaber. “This assessment will help drive our current early learning reforms and accountability for results, and should serve as a challenge to all our communities to focus on kindergarten readiness with a true sense of urgency.”

Stacy Smith, director of curriculum and instruction with the Crook County School District, reacted to the assessment with caution.

“It’s important to remember that this is the very first attempt at assessing kindergarten,” he said. “It's hard to say what it means right now.”

The literacy test presented students a chart of 100 letters, both lower and upper case, asking students to identify as many as they could within 60 seconds. They were also shown a chart with 110 letter combinations and asked to pronounce their sounds.

Statewide, students identified, on average, 18.5 letters, with Crook County students keeping pace, naming 18.3. For letter sounds, the statewide average was 6.7 correct pronunciations, with Crook County scoring slightly better with 6.9.

The math assessment consisted of 16 questions, with students answering, on average, 8 of the 16. Crook County students scored slightly better with 8.3 questions answered correctly.

Although not yet quite sure how to interpret the results, Smith is encouraged.

“As a first look, I don’t know how to reference the results,” he said, “But, our students scored better than the state average in most of them.”

How a student approaches learning and their ability to focus, persevere at a task, and work with others was also assessed. Teachers observed students during regular classroom activities, rating them on a scale of 1 to 5.

Statewide, students scored a 3.9 on interpersonal skills, while Crook County students earned a 4.3.

“The kindergarten assessment information will provide us critical baseline data so that educators can ensure students are poised to read at grade level by third grade,” said the state’s Chief Education Officer Nancy Golden. “We know that early education plays a profound role in a student’s trajectory, and the ability to provide concrete feedback to early education providers creates tremendous system alignment and focus towards the third grade reading benchmark.”

Smith agrees that assessments must begin as early as possible.

“If we are to measure third-grade reading success,” he said. “we have to begin to look at the earlier years and understand if we are providing enough resources.”

Smith noted that there is a strong link between students that attend a structured preschool environment and success in the early grades.

“If a student happens to be from a community where a greater percentage attend preschool environments, that student may be more advanced, when compared to children that are in family child care,” he said, adding that approximately 70 percent of Crook County preschool kids are cared for by friends and family.

The Oregon Early Learning Division of the Oregon Education Investment Board suggested a number of ways that parents might encourage early-learning techniques in their kindergartners-to-be.

Reading and visiting libraries instills confidence in early readers, while playing games such as the venerable “Simon Says,” or “Red Light, Green Light,” teach children how to follow directions. Parents are encouraged to allow children to make their own choices, be it the clothes they wear or the vegetables served at dinner. There are also numerous ways that math skills can be introduced, from sorting socks at laundry time to counting carrot sticks at snack time or identifying different object shapes.

The state has also released data on high school graduation rates, and Oregon’s Deputy School Superintendent Rob Saxton is quick to tie them to early childhood success in school.

“Our recently released kindergarten assessment results are an excellent reminder of the importance of giving students that strong early start,” said Saxton. “Improving our graduation rate begins with getting students prepared for kindergarten, ensuring they are strong readers by third grade.”

Smith agrees.

“We currently measure kids from third grade on up,” he said. “We better start figuring out ways to measure student success at the kindergarten through second-grade level so that we are not starting out at such a deficit.”

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