More than 40 states either have or are in the process of developing Kindergarten Readiness Assessments (KRA), a tool to measure children’s readiness for kindergarten. While KRAs have several benefits for teaching and learning, the results can also be used inappropriately, according to a recent Ounce of Prevention Fund report, “Uses and Misuses of Kindergarten Readiness Assessments.”
KRAs differ state-by-state, but typically the kindergarten teacher uses their observations and interactions with students to evaluate each child’s kindergarten readiness across multiple learning domains, including early literacy, numeracy, and social and emotional development.
The information collected from KRAs can be used to help teachers better understand the needs of their students overall and align teaching practices effectively. The results can also give teachers the information they need to provide more individualized learning for their kindergarteners. And, teachers can use information from KRAs to identify students who may have developmental delays and work with families to meet their child’s learning needs.
School readiness isn’t just a one-way street. KRAs can also be used to help schools become better prepared to meet the needs of incoming students. The Ounce report suggests using the results for community conversations on how to smooth transitions into kindergarten for children and families and how to design early education programs.
One more use of KRA results is to inform state policy. Data from these assessments can help district and state policymakers better understand what gaps exist in children’s knowledge and skills as they enter kindergarten and direct early education investments to help close those gaps earlier in children’s lives.
Those are all valuable uses of KRAs. But there are also several tempting ways to misuse the results. The Ounce delves into three potential misuses. First, the results should not be used to keep children from entering kindergarten. Not only were these assessments not designed for this purpose, but researchers have cautioned against this practice as it could be harmful to children’s learning.
Another misuse of KRA results is for school or program accountability. According to the Ounce report, some states have begun using these results to hold early learning providers accountable. One example the report highlights is Florida. While Florida has since made changes, the Florida State Board of Education previously used the results from its Kindergarten Readiness Screener to determine how well a state Voluntary Prekindergarten Program (VPK) provider prepared 4-year-olds for kindergarten. Providers that had below 70 percent of kindergarten-ready students were subject to probation and required to submit and implement plans for improvement. However, a bill passed during the 2016 legislative session directed Florida’s Office of Early Learning not to adopt KRA rates for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years for VPK providers, primarily because of changes in the KRA screenings and concerns over the “range of assessments in public schools.”
The authors of the report wrote that a state that wants to effectively use KRAs as an accountability measure would need to invest in high amounts of training to ensure that scores are reliable, meaning that two different people scoring a child would produce the same score. This would require a both large investment by the state, and even with the extensive training, the reported noted that there would likely always be measurement errors or small variations. If KRAs are used for high-stake decisions, such as determining school performance or if funds should be spent on pre-K or elementary schools, these variations could have dramatic consequences on students.
Finally, the Ounce report raised issues with using KRA results for pre-K and kindergarten teacher evaluation. Once again, the assessments are not designed for this purpose. Because teacher measures are used to determine growth produced by teachers, a one-time child assessment would not provide information on a student’s growth, and even if there was an assessment at the beginning of the pre-K year, a KRA does not account for the summer learning loss many students experience. Additionally, because the scores of the KRAs are designed to measure a student’s readiness at the beginning of kindergarten, the Ounce report cautioned many students who are high in readiness may outgrow the KRA scale by the end of year, suggesting, inaccurately, little growth. And, using these teacher-administered assessments for teacher accountability could incentivize teachers to inflate students KRA results. The authors wrote “even the most expensive and rigorous system of teacher training on completing teacher-reported assessments may not completely counteract the natural human tendency to bias the results based on the incentives created by how those results will be used.”
While it is possible that future KRAs will be designed to measure accountability, no current KRA (at least that the Ounce knows of) is. States would be wise to stop trying to use these assessment results in ways they are not meant to be used. The real value of KRAs are in individualizing children’s learning, informing instruction, connecting with families, preparing schools, and guiding early education investments to ensure that all children have a solid start in life.