At Summit Hall Elementary School in Gaithersburg, kindergartners learn math by looking for patterns in stories, making patterns with Froot Loops and crayons, and jump-jump-hopping on a classroom rug.
As they worked and played on a September morning, their teachers carefully recorded observations in notebooks and on laptops of who volunteered answers and how they penciled in their wobbly names. The children had no idea that these animated lessons were actually part of the first standardized state test of their academic careers.
In November, the teachers’ cumulative thoughts and impressions will form part of a kindergarten assessment in Maryland to show how prepared the students are for school.
More than a decade ago, Maryland became among the first states to administer a comprehensive test of skills at the academic starting line.
Today, as educators and lawmakers tighten their focus on improving the quality of early learning opportunities, about half of all states have some type of entry assessment, and the number is growing.
In Virginia and the District, new kindergarten-readiness tests are in a pilot phase.
The federal government is fueling their development in other places through Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants and another round of assessment grants worth $15 million that was announced last month. Maryland has won grants through both programs, in partnership with some other states, and is revising its test to align with the Common Core, a new national approach to academic standards.
Amid today’s efforts to heighten academic standards in public schools, many educators say third grade is too late to start assembling a clear picture of what students know and whether they are on track for college or a meaningful career. The tests guide interventions for kindergarten students and have helped spotlight academic achievement gaps already evident at the start of school.
But the push down into the traditionally “untested grades” is also sparking debates about what should be included on the tests and how they should be used.
Some states test only literacy skills, which experts say offer a limited view of a child’s readiness for school.
Maryland’s assessment looks at early academic skills as well as physical, personal and social skills. Students are rated as “Proficient,’ “In Process” or “Needs Development” on dozens of learning objectives. Teachers evaluate student work and their day-to-day behavior.
“If you are constantly telling them ‘Criss-Cross Applesauce’ ” to get them to sit down cross-legged at group time, “you know they are not getting a ‘P’ in the ‘follows directions’ category,” said kindergarten teacher Julie Graves.
Such tests have typically provided educators with information about the kinds of support or special instruction students need or which schools or groups of students need more attention.
But advocates of early education are concerned that the information will be used to make high-stakes decisions by tracking students, for example, or delaying their entry into kindergarten.
“Oftentimes when we get a data point, we jump to make decisions,” said Kyle Snow, director of the center for applied research at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. “That is the greatest fear with these tests.”
The Maryland results, reported annually by state and jurisdiction, have focused efforts to improve school readiness across the state, said Rolf Grafwallner, Maryland’s assistant state superintendent for early childhood development.
Lawmakers have used the readiness test to track — and advocate for — a host of early childhood education investments, including universal full-day kindergarten and a dramatic expansion of publicly funded pre-kindergarten so that all 4-year-olds from low-income families have access.
The most recent report from the 2012-13 school year showed significant improvements statewide, with 82 percent of kindergartners entering school “fully school ready” compared with 49 percent in 2001-02.
Maryland also publishes results broken down by types of early care. According to the latest report, 83 percent of students who went to public pre-kindergarten were fully school ready, compared with 71 percent who were at home or in informal care.
As investments in early education increase, politicians and educators are eager to see whether they are paying off and which programs are the most effective. Some are using the kindergarten test as a sign of a preschool’s quality.
Florida has designed a system to rate individual providers of publicly funded pre-kindergartens based on how well their students are performing on an observational kindergarten-readiness test. Low performers eventually risk losing their funding, said Cheryl Etters, press secretary for the Florida Department of Education.
Many advocates warn against using such tests to rate individual programs, saying that they do not reflect experiences at home or elsewhere that might influence a child’s abilities.
It’s also harder to ensure the integrity of most kindergarten tests, particularly when school ratings are attached to the results, experts say.
Because young children have shorter attention spans and are often inconsistent in demonstrating what they know, many kindergarten tests are based on teacher-reported observations of students. That approach is considered more appropriate than a traditional “bubble” test, but it’s more difficult to get consistent results.
At Summit Hall Elementary, less than half of students arrive at school having attended a formal pre-kindergarten program. Some have no preschool experience, while others have just moved here from another country. Everyone is expected to progress quickly as teachers begin the assessment process.
Within the first month of school, students were counting to 100. By the end of the year, they will be expected to read independently.
The readiness test helps teachers understand where the students are and what they need, said Sue Hankin, another Summit Hall kindergarten teacher.
“You get to know them really well from all the observations,” she said.