E3 Spotlight: Our Early Warning Has Sounded Kindergarten Readiness Drops Across the Region

by Laura Koenig

Kindergarten Readiness Drops Across the Region

The Challenge

Our region’s strategic plan for education, The Blueprint for Educational Change, tracks student outcomes that help our community focus on high standards, such as high school graduation and post-secondary completion. One of the most important metrics for success is Kindergarten Readiness: when a student enters Kindergarten, is she on track to succeed in school? For six years, E3 Alliance has tracked Kindergarten Readiness in Central Texas using the most comprehensive, student-centered readiness standard in the state. This year, our early warning system has sounded: significantly fewer students are ready for school this year, than they have been in the previous 5 years.

Compelling Data

From 2010 to 2014, student readiness for school in Central Texas was quite stable, with just over half of students ready for school. School readiness is assessed based on early literacy, early numeracy, language and communication and social and emotional skills. The ability to maintain a consistent level of student readiness is viewed as positive given our regional challenges over the last several years. Even in the face of challenges based on recent demographics changes, Central Texas school districts were able to maintain student readiness. This year; however, the regional percentage of students ready for Kindergarten dropped significantly, from 53% to 41%. As a region, we must understand the factors related to this drop, and we must take rapid and comprehensive action to help these students succeed.

Kinder graph 2

Understanding School Readiness

  • Beginning in 2008 and continuing through 2010, E3 Alliance facilitated an effort that led educators and early childhood experts to take state guidelines to create the first student-centered, multi-competency readiness standard in the state: Ready,Set,K!.
  • We leveraged this multi-competency assessment to create a formative Ready,Set,K! assessment and intervention process in Pre-K to build student readiness.
  • Since 2010 we have been measuring Kindergarten readiness yearly in Central Texas.
  • We validated the Ready,Set,K! formative assessment as a measure of Kindergarten readiness.
    • Assessment results are highly predictive of both reading and math success in 3rd grade.
    • Kindergartners are 3 to 3.5 times more likely to pass their 3rd grade STAAR if they were ready for school
    • Kindergarten readiness was more predictive of third grade success than any demographic factor
  • We reviewed the 2015-16 readiness drop across the region, compared it to interim outcomes in individual school districts, and confirmed that readiness is significantly lower this school year, which predicts that fewer of our students will be successful in school at 3rd grade.

What Caused the Drop?

Though we cannot definitively determine the cause of this year’s drop in readiness, a significant quantitative and qualitative investigation lead to two potential overarching factors: student enrollment demographics and a marked drop in early childhood support services.

Student Enrollment Demographics:

We see two primary changes in the makeup of students:

  • More students this year (87% vs.80%) are “free lunch” students (those whose families earn less than 130% of the federal poverty level) versus “reduced price lunch” (those whose families earn less than 185% of the federal poverty level). This corresponds with data that show our population in poverty increasing at a faster rate than our non-poverty population.
  • Among students who were in a Pre-K program the year before kindergarten, a smaller proportion of English Language Learners (ELLs) attended this year (83%) compared to the 5 prior years (90-93%). E3 Alliance research indicates that, after taking into account other demographic factors, attending Pre-K increases the likelihood that a student is ready for Kindergarten by a factor of four.

Drop in Early Childhood Support Services:

In addition, we know that the 2015-16 class of Kindergarten students had far less access to federal, state, and local services in their formative 0-3 years that could have helped support readiness. As the following graphic shows, the Central Texas child population has increased substantially relative to 2007, as has the rate of growth of children in poverty. In contrast, the number of children served through state and federal programs such as Early Childhood Intervention, Early Head Start, Child Care Subsidy supports, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, and the Women, Infant and Children nutrition program decreased significantly during 2010 through 2013, when this year’s Kindergarten cohort would have been 0-3. In fact the potential service gap between the number of low income children under 6 eligible for services versus the number who actually received federal and state services would have been nearly 3,000 children in 2007. In 2013, the potential service gap would have been 11,000 children.

Kinder graph 3

The drop services was due to state and federal funding cuts, compounded by a tightening of qualification guidelines.

  • Across 2010-2013, Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) services experienced 14% cuts across the board, program modifications that restricted eligibility to only those with the most severe needs, and gave a larger share of the costs to low income families. Thus “borderline” babies who were developmentally behind but not severe did not receive supports that might have helped them be ready for school a few years later.
  • In 2011, Austin/Travis County funding for early childhood services was cut by $600,000 a year, removing many supports in the area where the majority of our young children with high needs reside.
  • From 2011-2014 over $2.2 million dollars had been cut for designated local early childhood services.

The good news is that service providers across the county, led by United Way, came together in 2011 to create the Travis County School Readiness Action Plan to track trends and outcomes and to support redirecting local early childhood funding, which subsequently has been largely restored.

Building the Common Agenda

Our early warning system shows a clear correlational link between lack of access to these early services and lack of school readiness at age five. To avoid having a significantly smaller proportion of Central Texas students ready for Kindergarten in future years, our region and our state need to come together with a common voice to improve access to critical services for our youngest children. While children’s brains go through the most rapid development of their lifetime – from zero to age three – we must ensure that they have the supports they need for healthy development. 

But that is not enough. Without significant and rapid intervention, the 2015-16 Kindergartners are far less likely to be reading or completing math on grade level by 2018-19 in 3rd grade than any class now in our elementary schools. In fact, without a significant change in interventions and supports, our research shows that 1000 fewer students are likely to pass reading and/or math 3rd grade assessments in 2019 compared to our current 3rd grade class! National research shows that the longer we wait, the more costly those interventions will be. Without focused, concentrated regional intervention this cohort of children has a much higher risk of not reading at grade level, leading to lower graduation rates and lower post-secondary completion. Never before have we had data to act this early or this decisively to impact our children’s educational future.

In convening community stakeholders with a vested interest in ensuring children succeed and a strong educational pipeline, four recommendations for action have been put forward:

  1. Intensify interventions for children who are at greater risk of not passing third grade assessments
  2. Enroll children into high-quality Pre-K programs, especially children who are low-income and/or learning English as a second language that qualify for free Pre-K programs
  3. Ensure parents and families know what school readiness is and how to do simple everyday activities to build readiness
  4. Ensure children 0-3 years old have the quality and types of services that keep them on track for being ready for school

Kinder graph

 

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Laura Koenig, Director of School Readiness