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Q&A: Understanding Oregon's New Kindergarten Assessments

For the first time, Oregon has a statewide picture of what its youngest students know. The new kindergarten assessment results released Friday show that kids’ skills vary widely. They can depend on where kids live, or on their ethnicity or the language they speak at home. Rob Manning has been looking over the kindergarten assessment and joined Beth Hyams to discuss the results.

Kindergarten students match letters and sounds with images (file photo).

Kindergarten students match letters and sounds with images (file photo).

Rob Manning/OPB

Beth Hyams: What is this kindergarten assessment? What is it assessing?

Rob Manning: It was originally called the “kindergarten readiness assessment,” and that’s maybe a better name for it, because it’s aimed not at what kids are learning in kindergarten, but what they know when they get to kindergarten.

BH: And those skills are what, exactly?

RM: There are basically three areas: How ready are kindergarteners to start learning to read? How ready are they to work with numbers - early math; and how good are they at being in a classroom setting? The early literacy assessments showed the biggest gaps. Students were asked to do two things: to identify letter names and to produce different letter sounds.

BH: What did the state find?

RM: These tests aren’t “benchmarked” as they say in education parlance - in other words, there’s no pass or fail. But the state’s chief education officer, Nancy Golden, clearly feels children need to have better literacy skills when they walk in the door for kindergarten. I spoke to Nancy Golden today by phone.

Nancy Golden: What we see right now is that 33 percent of the students who came to kindergarten - and we got 95 percent of the kids to respond - know five or fewer letters of their alphabet.

RM: She says there were about 14 percent of students who didn’t know any letters. And the state results show some clear gaps along ethnic lines.

BH: And were these gaps similar to what schools face with students later on?

RM: It’s a familiar pattern, unfortunately. White kindergarteners could identify 21 letters, on average. Asian students knew more than that. Native American students identified about 14, and Hispanic students on average, know fewer than ten. With letter sounds there were similar differences, with Asian students being able to express the greatest variety of English letter sounds, followed by white students, then African-American, then Native American, and last, Hispanic. There are two broad influences here that Nancy Golden identified - income level and whether English is spoken at home.

Nancy Golden: The students who knew the most letters were in Lake Oswego and Sherwood, two of our wealthier communities. The students who knew the least were in Umatilla and Woodburn, communities that have poverty and also communities that have students who might not have English as their first language.

RM: I should mention that Nancy Golden didn’t say she was surprised by this information, and neither were officials at local school districts I spoke to.

BH: So if this isn’t new, is the state planning to do something new with this information?

RM: Yes. Unlike other public school reports we see where districts often respond by talking about strategies they’ve put in place, or investments they’re making, the kindergarten assessment is about what’s going on in early childhood, before school. I talked to Salam Noor, who used to work at Oregon’s Department of Education. He is now an assistant superintendent in the Salem-Keizer school district. He told me the data give a new statewide comparison with other districts — but that’s not what makes the report the most helpful.

Salam Noor: I think looking at this data, and all of these different categories will also help us have some conversations with childcare providers, early learning providers. This will be really helpful for our early learning hub in this region.

RM: Early learning hubs are an emerging way to coordinate oversight of what children are doing before they reach kindergarten — preschool and daycare settings, most of which are not public schools. The hubs are an outgrowth of the state’s Early Learning Council, created a few years ago, by legislators. So this Kindergarten Assessment, and the annual reports that’ll come in the future, may become a gauge of how successful the early learning efforts are in improving preschool and providing good learning experiences to young children.

BH: Thanks Rob.

RM: You’re welcome.

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