Kindergarten Entry Assessments During COVID-19: How are States Adapting?

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Sept. 14, 2020

School is back in session and kindergarten entry assessments (KEAs), sometimes referred to as kindergarten readiness assessments (KRAs), have begun. KEAs gauge students’ skills in literacy, language, and math, as well as social-emotional and physical development, within the first few months of kindergarten. The data gleaned from KEAs can help teachers tailor their instruction to meet students’ needs, inform families about children’s developmental progress, and guide state- and district-level decision making.

KEAs became widespread when the federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant competition encouraged states to adopt them in 2011. As of 2018-2019, 34 states and Washington, DC mandated the use of KEAs, and two states recommended but did not require them. States utilize a variety of commercially-developed and state-developed KEAs, the most common of which are Teaching Strategies Gold®, the Desired Results Developmental Profile-K (DRDPK) and the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment.

All KEAs combine student observation with direct assessment, typically conducted by their classroom teacher. The ongoing, authentic nature of KEAs is among their greatest strengths, but both observations and direct assessments can be difficult to perform during a pandemic. As the school year kicks off, many kindergarten classes are virtual or hybrid, making peer-to-peer and play-based observations a challenge. Direct assessments are slightly easier to conduct remotely, though not all kindergarten students will demonstrate their full range of knowledge through a computer screen. Assessments must adapt this year, just like the teaching they are intended to inform. But with so many demands placed upon teachers this year, will KEAs provide useful data or just add to their burden?

A recent Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) webinar, “Kindergarten Entry Assessments: Considerations for Fall 2020,” explored the differing approaches that states are taking to ensuring KEA requirements are met. Ohio, with 42 percent of districts currently engaged in hybrid or remote learning, was somewhat ahead of the curve. Ohio already had a number of students enrolled in virtual charter schools across the state, so guidance about virtual administration of their KRA-R, the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment Revised, was released back in 2014.

This guidance, according to Sophie Hubbell, Assistant Director in the Ohio Department of Education Office of Early Learning and School Readiness, requires in-person, individualized administration of direct assessments by a qualified test administrator, and allows for observations to be conducted through playgroups, in libraries, or in outdoor settings. Observations can also be conducted virtually with parents’ participation and permission if families choose to record audio, video, or send photos of children going about their daily activities for teachers to use as evidence.

South Carolina made adaptations to their KEA, according to Tina Shaw, a representative from the Office of Assessment in the South Carolina Department of Education. The state removed 17 items from the fall 2020 KEA that necessitate peer interactions, and updated the data entry systems to only include the 33 items that will be assessed. South Carolina is still requiring in-person administration of their state KEA, Teaching Strategies Gold®, so safety guidance was released to encourage social distancing, use of masks and gloves, and sanitizing of manipulatives used during the test.

Washington issued clear guidance to help teachers administer the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WaKIDS), a modified version of Teaching Strategies Gold®, this fall. When possible, the state recommends observations and assessments in face-to-face, play-based settings, even for students in remote learning. When that is not an option, teachers and families are encouraged to partner to document children’s abilities during regular routines, games, and learning activities, and use videos, photos, and samples of work submitted by caregivers. The guidance includes a set of engaging activities that match neatly to the objectives assessed in WaKIDS, which families can use to help measure children’s development, as well as a comprehensive list of discussion prompts that teachers can use to gauge students’ skills through conversations with families.

The KEA has a unique relevance this year, as it may help measure the impact of students’ interrupted pre-K experience in the spring. This new format of administration also provides a chance to collaborate with families and engage them in conversations about their child’s development throughout the administration process.

Still, issues in KEA administration and use that existed before the pandemic may be exacerbated by the current situation. KEAs have the challenging task of meeting multiple purposes: informing teacher instruction and guiding policy decisions. Some research has shown that teachers generally do not find KEAs useful for instruction, likely because of the lack of clear alignment between the tests and the content they teach. Teachers also have reported feeling pressured by timelines, and lacking the capacity to administer, input, and use the data produced by KEAs. Rather than supporting instruction, some teachers perceive the KEA as an additional burden.

Teachers have also raised concerns that administration of these tests takes away time from valuable beginning of the year activities. And because, in typical years, KEAs sit among a series of other beginning of the year assessments, including literacy and math benchmark tests, over-testing is a serious concern, particularly during the time of COVID-19, when instructional time is already limited. As one kindergarten teacher commented, “Honestly, we do it because we’re told we have to, but once we do it, we’re done… We feel like we spend more time assessing than we do teaching.”

One way to ease the burden during a year in which teachers and families are under tremendous stress, is for states to provide clear guidance on KEA-aligned activities and prompts for families, like in Washington, so teachers are not left to create these resources on their own. States may also consider extending the assessment windows to reduce the time-crunch KEAs can create by allowing for administration of the KRA two weeks ahead of the first day of kindergarten, as was done in Ohio, or extending the assessment window by two weeks, as is being done in Washington this year.

KEAs, imperfect though they may be, can provide a baseline of skills that incoming students have. The degree to which the data collected will be of use during remote, hybrid, or socially-distanced learning remains to be seen. Just as teachers, students, and families are being asked to adapt to this entirely new world of education, KEAs will need to do the same.

This blog post was updated 9.15.2020 at 11:45 a.m. to include a link to the CCSSO webinar.

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