Assessing Early Academic Skills
Core academic skills that children learn in elementary school are the traditional "three R's" of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Before they can read, write, or calculate, however, children must acquire rudimentary skills that serve as stepping stones toward mastery of the more advanced and complex skills. For reading, these rudimentary skills include becoming familiar with the conventions of print (such as the English-language convention of reading from left to right and from top to bottom); learning to recognize letters by name; associating sounds with letters or letter combinations; and understanding the meaning of many spoken words and phrases (Snow, Burns, and Griffin 1998). Rudimentary skills that form the foundation for mastery of arithmetic include rote counting; making one-to-one correspondences between spoken numbers and series of counted objects; recognizing written numerals; and understanding greater, lesser, and equal relationships (Ginsburg 1989).
These skills are not usually required for admission to kindergarten. Indeed, most kindergarten teachers feel that knowing letters and numbers is not crucial for school readiness because they can and do teach children these skills in kindergarten (West, Germino-Hausken, and Collins 1993). Nonetheless, many young children have learned some of these skills before entering school from interacting with their parents and siblings. Others learn the rudimentary skills in center-based child-care or prekindergarten programs. Developmental research indicates that children who have mastered these skills in the preschool years are more likely to learn to read, write, and calculate earlier and more proficiently than those who have not (Siegler and Richards 1982). What is less clear, however, is whether explicitly teaching these skills in preschool boosts children's later literacy and numeracy. Some developmentalists believe this to be the case, but the evidence is not yet definitive.
The ECLS-K assessments were designed to measure children's early academic skills in each of three domains: reading, mathematics, and general knowledge. (General knowledge includes primarily questions of fact and understanding about nature, science, social studies, and citizenship.) The assessment batteries were intended for use with both kindergartners and first-graders. The batteries contained items suitable not just for the average child but also for those whose development is advanced or substantially delayed. Because the batteries were designed to be administered repeatedly to the same children, the study will be able to measure growth in children's knowledge and skills from kindergarten entry to the end of kindergarten, into first grade, and beyond. A first-stage routing test in each domain helped to ensure that children received items that were neither much too easy nor much too difficult for their current levels of knowledge.
Although the assessors read all questions to each child, the tasks did require a basic knowledge of spoken English to be administered successfully. Therefore, preliminary screening was done of children from families in which English was not the primary language spoken at home. Those who did not score above a certain level were excluded from the English-language assessments.2 Children from Hispanic families who were excluded on this basis did receive a psychomotor assessment and oral language and mathematics assessments in Spanish. The cognitive assessment data presented here and elsewhere in this volume are only for the children who completed the assessments in English. Approximately 19 percent of Asian children and 30 percent of Hispanic children attending kindergarten for the first time were not assessed in English.
Every effort was made to include children with disabilities in the assessment process. Despite this effort, children with disabilities that precluded them from hearing the questions, seeing the stimulus plates, or responding orally or by pointing had to be excluded. Children with individualized instruction plans that prohibited them from being assessed were also excluded. Less than 1 percent of all first-time kindergartners were excluded from the assessment for these reasons.
Proficiency levels in reading. In addition to an overall scale score, clusters of items included in the ECLS-K assessments of reading and mathematics appraised whether children were proficient in several stepping-stone skills toward literacy and numeracy. The reading assessment included five proficiency levels: (1) identifying uppercase and lowercase letters of the alphabet by name; (2) associating letters with sounds at the beginning of words; (3) associating letters with sounds at the end of words; (4) recognizing common words by sight; and (5) reading words in context. These five levels reflected a progression of skills and knowledge: if a child had mastered one of the higher levels, he or she passed the items that comprised the earlier levels as well. Another reading skill assessed in the ECLS-K battery (conventions of print) did not fit neatly into this progression but was at about the same level of difficulty as recognizing letters. Several tasks asked the children which way to go when reading and where they would find the end of a printed story.
Proficiency levels in mathematics. The items in the mathematics assessment could also be grouped into a five-level progression of skills, though the mathematics clusters were less homogeneous in content than the reading clusters. The clusters of mathematics items included (1) identifying some one-digit numerals, recognizing geometric shapes, and one-to-one counting of up to 10 objects; (2) reading all single-digit numerals, counting beyond 10, recognizing a sequence of patterns, and using nonstandard units of length to compare objects; (3) reading two-digit numerals, recognizing the next number in a sequence, identifying the ordinal position of an object, and solving a simple word problem; (4) solving simple addition and subtraction problems; and (5) solving simple multiplication and division problems and recognizing more complex number patterns.
General knowledge. The subject matter of the assessment of general knowledge was too diverse and insufficiently ranked or graded to permit forming a set of proficiency levels. A score was calculated to represent each child's breadth and depth of understanding of the world around them. This assessment captured information on children's conception and understanding of the social, physical, and natural world and on their ability to draw inferences and comprehend implications. It also measured the skills children need to establish relationships between and among objects, events, or people and to make inferences and comprehend the implications of verbal and pictorial concepts. The assessment addressed such topical areas as history, geography, and science.
2 These children were included in the rest of the study (and data from them are included in the noncognitive assessment results presented below). (back to text)