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Perspective | Evaluating kindergarten readiness during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The challenge

The start of another school year is around the corner and with it comes kindergarten entry assessments (KEAs), sometimes referred to as kindergarten readiness assessments (KRAs). KEAs can provide a baseline understanding of children’s development as they enter the kindergarten year.

High-quality preschool gives children a strong start in kindergarten and the rest of their journey through K-12 education. Research shows that all children benefit from high-quality preschool, with low-income children and English learners benefiting the most. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has limited families’ access to high-quality, early childhood care and education as many facilities moved to virtual instruction. Additionally, pre-K and kindergarten enrollment dropped during the 2020-2021 school year.

Between the shift to a virtual format and decreased enrollment, it will be difficult to quantify the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic is undermining children’s readiness for kindergarten. Therefore, policymakers must evaluate how states will employ KEA assessment data collected during the 2021-2022 school year.

Use of KEA data

KEA assessments gauge children’s development in all domains of learning, including language and literacy, mathematics, cognitive development, social-emotional learning, and physical development, within the first few months of kindergarten.

The data gleaned from the KEA can help teachers tailor their instruction to meet children’s needs, inform families about children’s developmental progress, and guide state- and district-level decision-making. 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, children, and families are being asked to adapt to this ever-changing new world of education, the delivery of a KEA will need to do the same.

Policy considerations — Adaptations to the KEA

Assessment administration

 In best practice, KEA assessments utilize a formative assessment that includes classroom observations and developmentally appropriate practices, supplemented with family contributions. This ongoing, authentic nature of a KEA is among the greatest strengths of the assessment process.

But this formative assessment process can be difficult to perform in the virtual format that resulted during the COVID-19 pandemic. The developmentally appropriate nature of the KEA does not lend itself well to an online format for children in this age group to demonstrate their full range of skills and development.

As state and local leaders think about the best approach to KEA assessments, it will be important to consider what will be developmentally appropriate for young children while also keeping them and their families safe.  

South Carolina, in alignment with developmentally appropriate practices, is still requiring in-person administration of their state KEA, Teaching Strategies Gold.  The South Carolina Department of Education released “Testing Safety Guidelines” to encourage social distancing, use of masks and gloves, and sanitizing of manipulatives used during school assessments.

Partnering with families

With some schools still conducting learning remotely or virtually, policymakers should consider encouraging parent-teacher collaboration to incorporate virtual observations as an option for implementing KEAs. This can provide flexibility for teachers to administer assessments, collect data, and meaningfully engage with pre-K children remotely, if needed.

For example, Ohio still requires in-person, individualized administration of direct assessments by a qualified KRA administrator, and allows for observations to be conducted through playgroups, in libraries, or in outdoor settings. However, 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. Additionally, sharing free, early learning resources like ReadyRosie with families and caregivers can help young children get prepared to enter kindergarten.

Reviewing assessment items

Remote and hybrid learning have presented limitations for teachers to observe development in all domains of learning. Providing guidance to teachers on measuring a smaller subset of skills on the KEA can be useful to offset the challenges faced during the pandemic year.

One state that has put this into practice is South Carolina. The state reviewed and removed 17 items from the fall 2020 KEA, specifically assessment items that necessitate peer interactions.

Developing clear assessment guidance

Policymakers should consider the unique circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and create assessment guidance to support teachers administering the KEA assessment this coming school year.

When a remote learning environment is in place, state leaders should recommend strategies allowing the key components of the KEA formative assessment to take place in a face-to-face, play-based setting. In a circumstance where that may not be an option, provide support to teachers and families to foster partnership and collectively document children’s abilities during regular routines, games, learning activities, and use videos, photos, and work samples. 

Washington state issued guidance to help teachers administer the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills (WaKIDS), a modified version of Teaching Strategies Gold, for fall 2020. The guidance includes a set of engaging activities that match neatly to the WaKIDS assessment objectives, which families can use to help measure children’s development, as well as a comprehensive list of discussion prompts teachers can use to gauge children’s skills through conversations with families.

Extending the assessment window

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers reported lacking the capacity to administer, input, and use the data produced by KEAs. Rather than supporting instruction, some teachers perceived the KEA as an additional burden. Teachers have also raised concerns that administration of these assessments takes time away from valuable beginning of the year activities. Additionally, it is often the case that KEAs sit among a series of other beginning of the year assessments, including literacy and math benchmark evaluations.

Assessment overload is a serious concern, particularly during the critical years of early childhood. As such, state leadership may consider extending the assessment windows to reduce the time constraints faced at the beginning of the kindergarten school year. For example, allowing the KEA assessment to be administered two weeks prior to the first day of kindergarten, or extending the assessment window by two weeks could be helpful, similar to precedent set in Washington state.


Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published by The Hunt Institute. It has been posted with the author’s permission.

Hunt Institute Staff

The Hunt Institute is a strategic catalyst for transforming public education and securing our country’s future. Using our depth and breadth of knowledge, we bring together the right people and resources to facilitate critical dialogue and mobilize action on the issues that matter in education.