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From Kindergarten to Third Grade: Children's Beginning School Experiences


This report provides information on the range of cognitive skills and knowledge that children demonstrate in their first 4 years of school, as they progress from kindergarten through third grade. It also describes how children perceive themselves in terms of their school experiences and their relationships with their peers.

This report builds on findings of the ECLS-K program?s earlier reports, with the main purpose to continue to examine whether differences by certain child, family, and school characteristics found in earlier reports persist, desist, widen, or narrow. Those characteristics associated with differences in children?s achievement found in earlier reports (and which are explored here) are: (1) child?s sex; (2) race/ethnicity; (3) number of family risk factors; (4) kindergarten program type (full/half day); and (5) school type across the first 4 years of the study.

Consistent with patterns found in earlier ECLS-K reports, the knowledge and skills children demonstrated at the end of third grade continued to differ in relation to their race/ethnicity and their number of family risk factors. Black children had lower overall mean achievement scores in reading, mathematics, and science at the end of third grade, and were less likely to demonstrate specific thirdgrade reading and mathematics skills than White, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander children. Children with more family risk factors also demonstrated lower achievement in these areas than children with fewer risk factors. These types of differences were also present at the start and end of kindergarten and at the end of first grade (Denton and West 2002; West, Denton, and Reaney 2001). In addition, Black children made smaller gains in reading and mathematics from the start of school to the end of third grade than White, Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander children. Over the same time period, as the number of family risk factors increased, children tended to make smaller gains in the two subject areas. Thus, the achievement gaps between disadvantaged and more advantaged children grew wider over the first 4 years of school.

Findings from this report indicate that children?s overall gains and status in reading and mathematics at the end of third grade did not differ substantively by sex. In addition, substantive sex differences were not found in terms of children?s third grade overall science achievement. However, as was found in first grade (Denton and West 2002), girls continued to be more likely than boys to demonstrate more advanced reading knowledge and skills, and boys were more likely than girls to demonstrate more advanced mathematics knowledge and skills.

This report also described children?s achievement status and gains in relation to whether they had always attended a public school, private school, or had attended both types of schools between kindergarten and the end of third grade. In the first weeks of school, private school kindergartners demonstrated higher achievement status in reading and mathematics than public school kindergartners (West, Denton, and Germino Hausken 2000). When mean achievement scores were compared by school type, these differences also existed in third grade between children who attended public schools for all 4 years and those who attended private schools for all or part of the time, and were also found in terms of children?s science achievement. When regression analyses were used, however, to control for the influence of other factors (e.g., race/ethnicity and number of family risk factors), the only substantive difference detected was that children who had always attended private schools had higher third-grade reading achievement than those who had only attended public schools. Also, the achievement gap between public and private school children did not widen substantively over the first 4 years of school, even between those children who always attended the same type of school from kindergarten through third grade.

Earlier ECLS-K reports found that public school children who attended full-day (vs. half-day) kindergarten programs made greater gains in kindergarten in reading and mathematics, after controlling for other characteristics, and were more likely to demonstrate advanced reading skills at the end of the kindergarten year (Walston and West 2004; Denton, West, and Walston 2003). When overall achievement was compared for full-day and half-day children from both public and private schools, however, differences in reading and mathematics achievement were not detected (West, Denton, and Reaney 2001). Findings from the current report also detected no differences in achievement at the end of third grade for public and private school children combined, related to the type of kindergarten program children had attended.

During the kindergarten year, teachers reported that children tended to form friendships easily (82 percent) and accept peer ideas in cooperative activities (77 percent) and that few exhibited problem behaviors such as fighting with others (8 percent) or get angry easily (9 percent) (West, Denton, and Reaney 2001). In that year, White and Asian kindergartners were rated as more likely to accept peer ideas and form friendships than Black kindergartners, and teachers also indicated that children with fewer risk factors were more likely to demonstrate these skills than those with more risk factors. In third grade, when children reported for themselves on their school experiences, there were few group differences reported in their perceptions about their reading, mathematics, or general school interest and competence, or in their perceptions about their abilities to make and maintain friendships. In third grade, children generally indicated that they felt positively about their competence in these four areas. Girls had greater interest in and perceived competence in reading than boys.

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Children?s academic performance in reading and mathematics was also related to their perceptions of their interest and competence in the corresponding subject area. Children who were performing in the top third of the sample in a given subject area rated their competence in it more highly than children achieving at lower levels.

More differences were detected at the end of third grade on the two scales of internalizing (e.g., shy, withdrawn, sad) and externalizing (e.g., fighting, arguing, distractibility) problem behaviors than were detected on the other SDQ scales. Although children?s scores on the problem behavior scales were generally low, indicating that they only exhibited these behaviors on an occasional basis, those groups that also have lower achievement scores at the end of third grade (e.g., those with higher numbers of family risk factors) tended to rate themselves higher on both of the behavior scales than those with higher achievement levels (e.g., those with fewer family risk factors). In the kindergarten year, teachers also reported that these groups of disadvantaged children were more likely to get angry easily, argue with others, and fight with others (West, Denton, and Reaney 2001). Also, by the end of third grade, boys indicated that they were more likely to demonstrate externalizing problem behaviors than girls were.

The use of regression analyses in addition to bivariate analyses of children?s school performance demonstrates the importance of taking other factors (e.g., family risk factors) into account when comparing scores for different groups of children. Although many of the bivariate findings in this report were consistent with the regression analyses, there were some cases where initial findings did not hold in the regression results. In such instances, overall differences attributed to a given characteristic (e.g., being Hispanic) may instead be associated with other factors, such as the number of family risk factors. Thus, it is important to supplement bivariate statistics with the use of multiple regression analyses that control for other variables that may be associated with children?s school experiences.

It is important to remember that although the bivariate comparisons and regression analyses identify correlations between some independent variables and outcome measures, correlation does not imply causation. Apparent relationships between variables can change based on the particular independent variables examined. The small set of independent variables included in this descriptive report?s regression analyses were used with the specific purpose to clarify the descriptive results observed in the multiple bivariate comparisons.

Many of the findings in this report suggest the value of more in-depth exploration into children?s early school experiences. For instance, findings from this report indicate that children?s achievement in the spring of third grade and some of their perceptions about school differ in relation to their cumulative number of family risk factors. Further research could disaggregate the family risk factor index into its components (i.e., primary home language, family structure, poverty status, and maternal education) to examine which components are more strongly related to children?s achievement and perceptions about school.

Initial findings from this report did not detect any substantive differences in children?s third-grade achievement relative to the type of kindergarten program (full-day vs. half-day) they attended. Given the fact that the percentage of children attending full-day kindergartens has increased in recent years (Walston and West 2004), further research is needed to more closely examine the relationships between kindergarten program type and children?s achievement after 4 years of schooling by exploring interactions between kindergarten program type and child, family, and school characteristics. For instance, full-day kindergarten is not randomly distributed; rather, children at risk of school failure are more likely to attend such programs (Walston and West 2004). Researchers could also explore whether part-day kindergarten programs in conjunction with supplemental daycare arrangements function similarly to full-day kindergarten programs, in that both types of arrangements may provide the similar amounts of instructional time.

The ECLS-K data provide a unique opportunity to investigate how children?s perceptions about their school experiences are influenced by and have an impact on their school achievement. For example, researchers could explore whether third-graders? selfratings of their internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors are related to their academic achievement, both in third grade and later when data are collected in fifth grade. Also, future studies could examine whether children?s actual achievement is predicted by their perceived competence and interest in school subjects.

The ECLS-K is designed to provide a wealth of information on children?s cognitive, socioemotional, and physical development from kindergarten through fifth grade across multiple contexts, including the home, classroom, school, and community. Using ECLS-K data collected from children?s parents, teachers, and school administrators, future research on children?s achievement could also include information on parenting practices, the types of instructional experiences that children are exposed to in their classrooms, the qualifications of their teachers, or characteristics of the schools they attend. The availability of child, parent, teacher, and school information also provides a data source that can be used for more sophisticated analysis models (e.g., hierarchical linear modeling (HLM), structural equation modeling (SEM)).

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