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Same Story, Different Kids: At-Risk Kindergartners Fall Behind Easily

For those of us anxiously awaiting the public release of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - Kindergarten class of 2010-11 (ECLS-K 2010-2011) data, Mathematica’s recent report on kindergarten readiness offers a sneak peek. Though we have seen a bit of info on the cohort before, getting a further glimpse at the first ECLS-K class since 1998-99 promises to provide a more recent picture of children as they first enter school.

Unfortunately, the actual findings are rather dispiriting. Mathematica’s analysis tells a depressingly familiar story: a child’s preparedness for school depends in large measure on his or her exposure to certain risk factors, and non-white children as well as those from low-income families are disproportionately likely to face those experiences that put their learning at risk. Mathematica’s investigators focused on four risk factors that could impede student learning:

  • children of single parents
  • children of mothers whose highest educational level is less than high school
  • children in families with incomes below the federal poverty level
  • children in homes where the language spoken is something other than English
The authors first established how many children in the sample experienced any of these circumstances, and found that 44% were exposed to at least one risk factor, while 19% experienced two or more:


The authors then compared the outcomes of students exposed to different amounts of these risk factors and found a clear relationship across many dimensions, from math and reading performance to working memory -- a marker of self-regulation. Time and again, the researchers found not only that exposure to risk factors meant worse performance, but also that the magnitude of the effect on performance increased with the number of risk factors. Put another way, the more risk factors a child had, the less likely he or she was to be prepared for school. This pattern is evident in the following graphs of the mean student scores on reading, math, and working memory broken out by the number of risk factors a child experienced:MathReadingWorkingMemory

What do these differences amount to in terms of learning? The authors explain that the scoring disparity between the highest and lowest risk amounts to a little less than a year of learning. “To catch up,” the authors say, “high-risk children would need to make almost twice as much progress during kindergarten as low-risk children.”

Depressing as these findings may be, more discouraging still is the fact that exposure to risk factors that impede kindergarten readiness has not improved since the 1998-99 cohort of students. And, it may be getting worse. In the 1998-99 group, 58% of kindergartners had no risk factors, compared to the most recent cohort's rate of 56% students with no such obstacles in their lives. Though we can’t be certain that the number of children experiencing risk factors is trending upwards*, it is safe to conclude that the problem is at least getting no better.

In some ways, this finding is old news; we have long known that at-risk students do not perform as well as their more fortunate counterparts. But to the extent that old news continues to describe our present circumstances, it’s not really old news at all. When it appears possible the number of students experiencing the risk factors that impede their chances to succeed in school is going up, the need to remain aware of and focused on the effects of such disparities is particularly high.

The ECLS-K 2010-11 public data release should also reveal the number of children enrolled in full- and half-day kindergarten. However, if states had to collect such data, we would not have to depend on large longitudinal studies such as ECLS-K for information on the number of hours each day kindergartners spend in school. The existing lack of consistent data becomes especially troublesome when we see potential increases in the number of at-risk students as we seem to in the Mathematica analysis discussed above. A new report from New America that will be released next week will more deeply examine disparities in the number of hours per week, per year that children have opportunities to attend publicly funded pre-K and kindergarten. The report specifically recommends that “any government or organization that uses public revenue to fund education should be required to report publicly and to the federal government the number of hours per week and hours per year that children can be enrolled in kindergarten in their jurisdictions.” And if we want to be able to know how well such students are being served with enough time to be able to make changes when shortcomings arise, better reporting requirements for states will be necessary. 

*Standard errors are not included for the number of students at-risk in the Mathematica report, so we can’t know for certain that the percentages of students experiencing at least one risk factor are different.