Odds are, if you have a child over the age of 3, you’ve thought about kindergarten.
Perhaps it’s just briefly crossed your mind that your son or daughter will soon be away from you for multiple hours a day.
Or maybe you’re the kind of parent who maintains multiple Excel spreadsheets with lottery deadline dates and private-school financial aid applications.
Either way, it’s happening, this kindergarten thing, and if your child will be attending public school in Oregon, he or she will be evaluated on their math, reading and social skills.
That’s right, evaluated.
Sometime during the first six weeks of school — most commonly in the first three days — a teacher or an aide in your child’s classroom will administer a state-issued analysis of your child’s kindergarten readiness. And that doesn’t mean whether you think they’re ready, or whether they’re emotionally prepared to be in a classroom setting: We’re talking academics.
The first test
For the 2016-17 school year, the assessment has three segments: literacy, which includes identifying upper- and lower-case letter names and letter-sound recognition; “early math,” consisting of 16 elemental problems including counting, addition, subtraction and number patterns; and “approaches to learning,” wherein the teacher observes a student and reviews a number of items related to their self-management during classroom activities. The whole process is timed and intended to take around 15 minutes.
Some parents have been expecting this, long ago introducing their children to flash cards, educational apps and simple number games with an abacus or piles of beans. Others (like myself) will be caught off guard, having had their children in non-academic, play-based preschools or even no preschool at all, with little time or patience for flash cards or beans.
If you fall into this second category, does this mean your children will be doomed to failure, dropping out of high school to rob banks and spray-paint graffiti about their horrific parents?
Not exactly, says Karol Collymore, the Oregon Department of Education’s early learning public affairs director. The kindergarten assessment, the results of which are sent to both the state and the child’s teacher (2016-17 is the first year they will have immediate access; parents can request their child’s results from the school), is simply designed to provide a “snapshot” of a kindergartner’s abilities for the teacher and the state to be able to best meet his or her needs, since, according to Collymore, the assessment has been proven to be a strong predictor of third-grade reading.
Since schools in the Portland metro area serve children coming from homes with no books and children who have been sent to preschools with price tags equivalent to college tuition, it’s not surprising that there are, in fact, significant variances when it comes to this snapshot.
According to a February article in The Oregonian, of the 10 highest-scoring schools in the Portland metro area for kindergarten readiness in the 2014-2015 school year, half were in Beaverton, and only two — Ainsworth and Laurelhurst — fell under the umbrella of Portland Public Schools. At the highest-scoring school, Findley Elementary in northern Beaverton, according to the article, “the average child could name 44 upper- and lower-case letters in 60 seconds, knew 25 letter sounds and got 12 of 16 simple math problems right.”
Early prep pays off
So, what are these parents doing that others are not? According to Collymore, a little preparation goes a long way: “It’s great brain building for parents to help their kids get familiar with the alphabet or letter sounds. They can work on rhyming, recognition of letters in their names and other fun work, [but] one of the greatest skills parents can help work on is the ability to follow directions, regulate behavior and have positive interactions with others.”
To that end, Collymore recommends Vroom, a free service that offers early-learning-specific ways parents can interact with their kids. I downloaded Vroom’s app for my iPhone, and while most of the suggestions are somewhat rudimentary and geared toward younger children (identifying colors in the produce section at the grocery store, singing songs together), the program is well-designed, easy to use and a welcome reminder that simply being mentally and emotionally present often has unseen benefits — like how encouraging your child to copy your words and actions helps them learn how to communicate, or that by just asking questions, you’re helping them develop necessary critical-thinking skills.
As for the early numeracy portion of the assessment, simple activities like “playing a board game, counting numbers on dice, and moving forward that number of squares” is a great way to practice, says Collymore.
However, preparation can only go so far for a newly minted elementary-school student whose first encounter with a tumultuous new environment is a timed test of their abilities.
Some parents feel the rigorousness of the assessment is unreasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds. In 2014, for example, kindergarteners in Beaverton (at that time still among the highest performing in the state) were only able to name approximately 25 letters.
Some parents simply opt out of the test altogether. Formally, the ODE only recognizes disability and religion as valid excuses (any exception must be initiated by the parent), but in an age of religious exemptions for everything from wearing plush fox hats at the DMV to exceptions based on Dudeism (“This aggression will not stand, man”), the road to opting out is surprisingly devoid of red tape. Furthermore, many teachers go so far as to recommend it themselves.
“[The assessment] is not really a worthwhile use of our time,” says Aubrey Pagenstecher, a kindergarten teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School in Northeast Portland. “It doesn’t give me any unique information that I can’t gather on my own, it’s not complete, and the data isn’t even necessarily accurate … some of the questions could be really foreign to a student who’s never been [to school] before, and with the assessment there’s supposed to be so much consistency that you have to follow a script — we’re not really given a lot of license to explain it in terms the students might be able to understand.”
The Oregon Department of Education, of course, frowns on parents who choose to opt out. “The kinder assessment is used to measure the health of our systems, help us improve and support all Oregon students,” says Collymore. “The long-term consequences [of parents opting out] are that the Oregon Department of Education and the Early Learning Division will not be able to measure improvements over time and resources may not be directed to students furthest from opportunity.” Some teachers, including Pagenstecher, disagree: “From what I can see, they don’t do a lot to correlate the data … which kids went to preschool, which ones didn’t. You’re not even going to get the most accurate results before kids have established some sort of comfort level [with the school environment.]”
Make early learning fun
So other than board games, Vroom and learning the alphabet, what can the average concerned parent do to help prepare their child for kindergarten?
For literacy, reading to your child and ensuring they have access to age-appropriate books is a good way to familiarize them with both letter recognition and phonics. Utilize your local library, but even if you don’t live near one, it doesn’t hurt to read everything you see — junk mail, street signs, even license plates.
For math, simple counting games are a great way to harness kids’ natural curiosity when it comes to numbers and organization. Try marking the divots in an egg carton with the numbers 1 through 12 and having your child count out the requisite number of their favorite items — Legos, crackers or even M&Ms. Or have them help with an easy cooking project involving the counting out of teaspoons and cups.
For social and emotional development, giving your child the opportunity to have playdates at friends’ houses without you being present is a good way to allow them to strengthen their independence and practice problem solving on their own. Also pre-kindergarten is the time to take an inventory of discipline policies in the home. Ensuring a child is exposed to consistent rules and consequences will allow for a smoother transition to the structure of a classroom environment.