Noncognitive Aspects of School Readiness
What family background characteristics affect children's skills and knowledge?
Several family background characteristics have repeatedly been found to be associated with poor educational outcomes among school-aged children, such as low achievement test scores, grade repetition, suspension or expulsion, and dropping out of high school. These risk factors include having parents who have not completed high school (Bianchi and McArthur 1993; West and Brick 1991; Zill 1996a) and coming from a low-income or welfare-dependent family (Zill et al. 1995). They also include living in a single-parent family (Dawson 1991; Entwisle and Alexander 1995; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Zill 1996b) and having parents who speak a language other than English in the home (Bianchi and McArthur 1993; Kao 1999; Rumberger and Larson 1998). Research has found that children who have one or more of these characteristics are more likely to be educationally disadvantaged or have difficulty in school (Pallas, Natriello, and McDill 1989). Although not all children who are at risk do poorly in school, those with such risk factors are, on average, more prone to poor achievement (Kaufman and Bradby 1992).
Children from multiple-risk families seem to be most in danger of achievement difficulties. Nord, Zill, Prince, Clarke, and Ventura (1994) found inverse relationships between cumulative risk scores and vocabulary and mathematics test scores, as did Sameroff, Seifer, Barocas, Zax, and Greenspan (1987) between measures of verbal IQ and social adjustment. Previous studies have also found direct relationships between cumulative risk and the chances of grade repetition or school suspension (Nord, et al. 1994).
The same family factors associated with poor performance in school-aged children have been linked with fewer developmental accomplishments in preschool children, as reported by parents (Zill et al. 1995). What the ECLS-K results showed was that these risk factors are also associated with lower reading and mathematics skills and general knowledge among entering kindergartners in the fall of 1998.
For purposes of the ECLS-K, four risk factors were defined:
The ECLS-K findings indicated that 46 percent of kindergartners have one or more of these four risk factors. Thirty-one percentnearly one in threehave only one risk factor, while another 16 percent have two or more risk factors (see figures 6 and 7). The preponderance of risk factors may be due to the dramatic changes in living patterns in the United States over the last quarter century, the persistence of poverty, and high rates of immigration, especially from Latin America (Zill 1999).
The proportion of kindergartners who come from at-risk families changes dramatically from urban to suburban and rural America and across different racial-ethnic groups. In cities with populations above 250,000, nearly two-thirds of entering kindergartners have one or more risk factors, and 26 percent have multiple risk factors (see figure 8). In contrast, in the suburbs of large cities and in small towns, the situation is almost reversed. In those communities, nearly two-thirds of kindergartners have none of the four risk factors, and about 1 in 10 have two or more. Rural areas and midsize cities and their suburbs are similar to the national averages in the frequency of risk factors.
Sociodemographic risk factors are considerably more common among kindergartners from racial-ethnic minorities than among those from white families (see figure 9). Nearly three-quarters of entering kindergartners from black or Hispanic families have one or more risk factors, compared with 29 percent of those from white families. The proportion of children with two or more risk factors is five times larger among Hispanics (33 percent) and four times larger among blacks (27 percent) than among whites (6 percent). Risk factors are also more common among Asian kindergartners. A majority of Asian children (61 percent) have at least one risk factor, but 44 percent have one risk only. The proportion of Asian children with multiple risk factors is 17 percent, about the same proportion as that of all U.S. kindergartners.
The frequency of risk factors does not vary by age, except for those children in the oldest age group (those who are already 6 years old as of September 1st). Older children have significantly fewer risk factors than do younger children. Two-thirds of the 6-year-olds have none of the four risk factors, and 10 percent have two or more.
Nearly half of those with multiple risk factors score in the bottom quartile in early reading and mathematics skills, and general knowledge.
Children with one of the four risk factors have early reading and mathematics skills that lag behind those of children with none of the four risk factors (see figure 10). These children's scores in general knowledge on the ECLS-K assessment are also lower than those of children from families with no risk factors (see figure 11). Furthermore, children with two or more risks significantly lag behind those with one risk. Thus, the results from the ECLS-K are consistent with the notion of a cumulative effect of multiple risks on children's early intellectual development. Here are illustrative survey results:
The relationship between the number of risk factors and the proportions of each group that fall in the bottom and top quartiles of the test score distribution is the same for mathematics and general knowledge as it is for reading. As an illustration, children with multiple risks are about one-sixth as likely to be in the top quarter of general knowledge scores as children with none of the four risk factors.
In terms of specific reading and mathematics skills that kindergartners with risk factors do or do not have when entering school, the ECLS-K results showed the following:
Although their numbers are comparatively small, some children from multiple risk families are able to overcome their disadvantage and perform at advanced levels from the start of kindergarten. About one child in 20 from the high risk group is two proficiency levels ahead of the typical kindergartner in reading (able to associate letters with sounds at the ends of words). A similar proportion is one level ahead of the typical pupil in mathematics (able to identify the ordinal position of an object in a series). One child in a hundred from the high risk group is advanced in reading or mathematics at school entry: he or she is reading sight words or doing addition and subtraction problems.