Study Finds Gains in All-Day Kindergarten

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Prince William County school system recently completed a report about its fledgling full-day kindergarten program that confirmed what national research has shown: Spending a full day in kindergarten -- rather than a half-day -- is more effective at closing the achievement gap between students of different races and socioeconomic groups.

The study, which analyzed scores on a state standardized exam taken by Prince William kindergartners at the beginning and end of the 2004-05 academic year, shows that full-day kindergartners nipped the achievement gap in the bud.

Black, Hispanic and white students in full-day kindergarten made the same level of improvement and reached similar benchmarks on the state Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS), a test used by most schools in Virginia, according to the study.

Test scores from half-day kindergartners showed sizable gaps between students of various races, ethnicities and incomes.

"To me, that's really exciting to think at the end of kindergarten, we're able to not begin the achievement gap," said Pamela Gauch, the associate superintendent for student learning and accountability. "We're going to keep track of them to see if it gave them that jump-start. This supports the fact that more time is beneficial."

Full-day kindergarten is an increasingly popular education initiative, as school systems try to produce parity between minorities and whites and between low-income and wealthier students, or else face the consequences of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In Prince William, the school system has been particularly aggressive in recent years in pursuing full-day kindergarten. School officials installed the program in at least one class at all 18 Title I schools -- schools with the greatest percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches -- during the 2004-05 academic year; and this year, five more non-Title I schools have a full-day kindergarten class.

Superintendent Steven L. Walts, in his first year on the job, raised the number of full-day classes considerably in his budget for next year, providing it at two-thirds of the elementary schools for the 2006-07 academic year. In the year after that, the school system hopes to have it at every school.

School Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large) said the study's results are reaffirming, especially in light of the program's expense. "It's having the space, the supplies and more teachers," she said.

The school system's study is based on the PALS exam and shows how students in both types of kindergarten performed when they took it at the beginning of the 2004-05 school year and at the end. The PALS exam has goals that it expects students to achieve; in the fall, the benchmark is low, but in the spring it is higher.

For full-day and half-day kindergartners who did not meet the exam's benchmark in the fall, their results on the spring exam were significant.

Full-day kindergartners made huge improvements and met the PALS benchmark in the spring; half-day kindergartners made slightly smaller improvements on average in the spring and did not meet the PALS benchmark at all.

The most startling achievement gap occurred between students with limited English proficiency and fluent speakers. Full-day kindergarten students who did not meet the PALS benchmark in the fall and who are non-native speakers improved greatly when they took the exam in the spring and essentially stayed even with their fluent English-speaking peers.

But in half-day kindergarten, the limited-English-proficiency students scored much lower than the fluent speakers.

At Marumsco Hills Elementary School in Woodbridge, Principal Joanne Alvey said the program had staying power. This year's first-graders -- who were among the first to go through all-day kindergarten -- have shown success in reading.

The only problem now, she said, is that because her school attracts so many transfers -- many of whom may not have had all-day kindergarten -- there will be some students who may lag behind.

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