A bill for kindergarten readiness standards to meet a need – or cause problems?

March 23, 2016

Children listen to a story read out loud at their preschool in San Francisco.

An Oakland Assemblyman has proposed legislation to create new kindergarten readiness standards in state-funded preschools, saying the bill would give low-income students and those learning English an equal shot at academic success.

“It seems simple but we don’t have it,” said Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, author of AB 2410, which he introduced last month. “We’re the largest state in the country and other states have it and, frankly, we need it. We need to know what we’re trying to accomplish in early childhood education. The question should be, ‘How can we not have kindergarten readiness standards?’”

He calls it “a justice issue” that is long overdue.

Bonta’s bill continues a decades-long national debate about whether such standards succeed or, as critics contend, lead to teaching practices and testing that are unsuited to how preschool-age children develop intellectually, behaviorally and emotionally.

The bill gives the state more than two years to set a definition of “kindergarten readiness,” which must be submitted to the State Board of Education by July 1, 2018. With such a definition, Bonta says the bill would address inequality through local innovation, boosting the overall quality of state-funded preschools and transitional kindergarten. He said it would also help preschools “tailor” their curricula to align with those of the early elementary grades and generate more concrete classroom improvements than the current assessment does.

The bill would enable preschools to get a waiver from the current state-mandated child development assessment, which, Bonta said, registers valuable information but is unwieldy and rarely leads to educational improvements. Under his bill, preschools would work with school districts, community organizations or county education offices to create their own assessments of student progress, develop programs to support teachers and parents and meet the readiness standards designed by the state. The standards contemplated in the bill must set clear benchmarks in skills that lead to success in academics and other areas, including social and emotional abilities.

“We’re the largest state in the country and other states have it and, frankly, we need it. We need to know what we’re trying to accomplish in early childhood education. The question should be, ‘How can we not have kindergarten readiness standards?’” – Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland

But critics warn that Bonta’s approach could lead to academic goals and teaching methods inappropriate for preschool-age children.

“The idea of a single readiness standard is misleading and actually can be quite dangerous,” said Julie Nicholson, an associate professor of practice at Mills College who researches readiness standards. “Even if they don’t lead to tests, the bottom line is they’re going to corrupt early childhood.”

Roberto Viramontes, senior policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute, a nonprofit education research organization, cautioned that AB 2410 could encounter problems that developed in some of the 29 other states that have such standards.

“This legislation re-centers the discussion (to) begin developing a statewide, standardized process for measuring kindergarten readiness that can help inform the instruction and social-emotional and health-related services provided to the state’s kindergartners,” Viramontes said in an email.

But there are lessons to learn from states where readiness standards have led to testing viewed as ineffective or ill-suited to how children learn at different stages of development, Viramontes added, citing Maryland as well as Florida, where pushback from teachers led to a temporary suspension of preschool testing. A University of Ohio study last year found that teachers and principals in Ohio didn’t understand the purpose of the test or how to administer it and that it wasn’t being used to guide decisions about how to teach, he said.

While Bonta’s bill proposes no sanctions or accountability measures, nor does it envision testing, there are other pitfalls in setting universal readiness standards, said Nicholson, who is also director of the Mills College Center for Play Research.

“Any evaluation of whether children are ready for kindergarten, unless they’re very enlightened, is going to be setting goals that are not realistic from a developmental perspective,” she said. Efforts to hit those marks, she said, can lead to practices at the preschool level that disrupt development, such as drilling children on words or letter sounds or having them do worksheets rather than activities that incorporate learning.

Applying academic standards to children at too young an age is harmful, she said, and a politically initiated effort to define kindergarten readiness, no matter how well intentioned, moves toward that.

“The idea of a single readiness standard is misleading and actually can be quite dangerous.”  – Julie Nicholson, an associate professor of practice at Mills College who researches readiness standards

“Then preschool is at risk of becoming a boot camp that is in many ways devoid of the rich learning opportunities for children,” she said. “Are they going to be able to discover and learn through hands-on activities and experiences or will teachers feel pressure to spend the majority of their time teaching” skills that will be tested instead of working with children to help them learn at a level that is appropriate to their development?”

Key to Bonta’s bill is allowing preschools and local agencies, such as county offices of education, to apply for a waiver from a mandatory assessment of preschool children’s development. That assessment, called the Desired Results Development Profile, or DRDP, is “to inform instruction and program development” from infancy to kindergarten, according to the California Department of Education. It includes 56 measures of development for teachers to assess, each with underlying subsets for which data must be recorded three times a year.

Among the measures teachers must track at three different stages are children’s ability to comfort themselves, to recognize and work with shapes, to feed themselves and to repeat the words and actions of others.

Bonta and others say it is an arduous exercise in data analysis and collection that rarely, if ever, is used to inform kindergarten teachers of a student’s readiness. As a result, he said, it doesn’t lead to actual changes in the classroom, asserting, “We need to evaluate these tools and see if they are achieving what we want them to or if they can be improved. What we have now is not ideal.”

Maria Jimenez, one of several San Diego preschool teachers interviewed about Bonta’s proposal, said, ”The reality is, our elementary teachers never see our document. We’ve done this lengthy, 56-measure document, and only we know about them. We put them in the closet and keep them for three years.”

Others had a mixed review of Bonta’s initiative. They pointed to current state guidelines for what children should learn and do in preschool — the Preschool Learning Foundations and said the new standards should reflect those. The current preschool assessment is already aligned with those guidelines.

“California has a chance of actually doing something quite good with this given some of the new thinking that’s going on about the assessment of children and what to do with those assessments,” said Joan Almon, co-founder of and director of programs at the research and advocacy group Alliance for Childhood. “But it assumes a pretty even level of progress and the range of where (children) are is so varied. We tend to hold them to the same standard at the same point in time and that’s just not a very good way to educate children. It’s just not realistic.”

Likewise, Miro Arteaga, a San Diego preschool teacher, said that any such standards would have to be sensibly aligned with kindergarten: “Because we do have many kindergarten teachers who do expect preschool children to come into kindergarten at a level that is not developmentally appropriate. It’s a problem when they expect a child to learn something their brain is not ready to learn.”

Bonta said his approach would incorporate preschool teachers’ expertise and foster creative approaches, as opposed to the DRDP, which emphasizes compliance but “doesn’t drive action.”

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