For decades, student success in the third through twelfth grades has been emphasized. More recently, pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, especially for low-income children, has gained much traction. Yet surprisingly the years that connect pre-K and third grade are still largely ignored— to the detriment of young students.
A new 50-state comparison database and companion report from the Education Commission of the States (ECS) specifically examines state policies that can support kindergarten through third grade quality (full disclosure: New America served as an advisor on this project). The ECS policy database complements our own 2015 From Crawling to Walking project that ranked states on birth-through-third grade policies in seven areas that support the development of strong readers.
Zooming in on the K-3rd grades, ECS covers several indicators of quality, but policies related to school readiness and transitions; instructional quality; and assessment, intervention and retention stand out as especially important.
School Readiness and Transitions: States can establish policies that help local schools and districts facilitate a smooth transition from pre-K to kindergarten. Some research shows that a well-connected pre-K-to-K transition makes the experience less stressful for children and paves the way for future success. In May, New America released a brief on the roles of principals in connecting pre-K and the early grades. The brief summarizes the learnings from focus groups that included directors of child care centers with pre-K aged children and elementary school principals. The leaders of these programs discussed many challenges related to students transitioning from a variety of pre-K options (child care centers, home-based care, or school-based programs) into elementary school, such as the difficulty of communicating expectations and mismatched cognitive and social-emotional standards. Because of these obstacles, it can be difficult for leaders and teachers to understand and adjust for their students’ levels of readiness. The report concluded that “leaders need more formal and consistent structures to help them build Pre-K-to-K transitions.”
The ECS report found that many states have at least some formal structures in place. Just over 30 states and DC require kindergarten entrance assessments, and 18 of them provide specific guidance around how results should be used. For example, some states require that schools report the results to the state Department of Education, and others use them as a way to evaluate pre-K program effectiveness. Nearly 20 states and DC provide direction for the pre-K-to-K transition process in state statutes. Notably, West Virginia and Connecticut, two of the top five states identified in From Crawling to Walking, require written transition plans and transfer of records between pre-K and kindergarten programs. In addition, states should take steps to meaningfully align pre-K standards and K-3rd grade standards, as doing so can help teachers better connect pre-K and kindergarten learning. (Many states report these standards are aligned, but this can amount to simply matching terms and topics rather than real depth.)
Instructional Quality: The case for quality instruction in the early grades is clear; students who do not read proficiently by third grade are six times more likely to drop out of high school. When it comes to reading, kindergarten through third grade teachers must have specialized skills and knowledge related to developing language and literacy.
ECS identifies 37 states that responded to this need by requiring teacher preparation and/or professional development in reading, including training on reading instruction, interpreting assessment results, and providing interventions. In Oklahoma, for example, one of From Crawling to Walking‘s top five states, all teacher candidates must pass an assessment measuring their teaching skills in the area of reading instruction, and all ECE and elementary teachers are provided trainings in intervention, instruction, and remediation strategies for students in K-3rd grade with reading difficulties.
Assessment, Intervention and Retention: Intervention for struggling readers in K-3rd grade is particularly important because many states (16 plus DC) have third grade reading laws that prevent students from promotion to fourth grade without grade-level proficiency. These policies are part of larger systems in nearly 40 states and DC that require assessment and intervention in at least one of the K-3rd grades, and offer guidance around what assessments should inform.
Third grade marks a reading checkpoint for many states, but there is variation in what assessments and interventions look like. Oklahoma requires reading assessments at the beginning and end of each year, which it uses to inform progress monitoring. Struggling readers are eligible for a range of interventions, including summer school, tutoring, and transition classes. In third grade, students who have not achieved proficiency are eligible for probationary promotion to fourth grade, where they receive continuous monitoring of reading performance.
To ensure that gains children make in pre-K are sustained and built upon, it is vital that states implement policies supporting high-quality education in K-3rd grade. ECS authors conclude that successful states focus on providing pre-K-to-K transition guidelines, make efforts to incentivize instructional quality, and use assessments to inform purposeful interventions before and during third grade. ECS’ comparison makes a valuable contribution to the discussion around quality in the early grades because it allows state policymakers to compare their own efforts to those of their fellow states. What matters even more than the policy itself, though, is how it is implemented by local district and school leaders. As part of policy, states should include opportunities to pilot policy changes, evaluate whether the policy leads to the desired action, and make the necessary adjustments in order to best support teaching and learning in K-3rd grades.