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


Children begin kindergarten with many different levels of reading and mathematics skills and make significant gains in their reading and mathematics achievement over the first 2 years of school (West, Denton, and Germino Hausken 2000; West, Denton, and Reaney 2001; Denton and West 2002). The knowledge and skills children acquire in kindergarten and first grade can serve as a foundation for their later educational success. It is important to explore children?s growth and development as they move from the beginning of kindergarten through the elementary school years.

This is the fourth report in a series that provides descriptive information about young children?s school experiences, based on data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998?99 (ECLS-K). The ECLS-K is a multisource, multimethod study that focuses on children?s early education, beginning with kindergarten. The ECLS-K includes measures of children?s health and socioemotional status, cognitive achievement, and their family, classroom, school, and community environments.

Sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), part of the U.S. Department of Education?s Institute of Education Sciences,7 the ECLS-K selected a nationally representative sample of kindergartners in the fall of 1998 and is following these children through the spring of fifth grade. The study collects information directly from the children and their families, teachers, and schools. The full ECLS-K base-year sample is composed of 22,782 children who attended 1,277 schools with kindergarten programs during the 1998?99 school year.

The first ECLS-K report, America?s Kindergartners (West, Denton, and Germino Hausken 2000), provided a national picture of the knowledge and skills of beginning kindergartners. It revealed that while first-time kindergartners were similar in many ways, differences existed in their knowledge and skills in relation to their age at school entry, race/ ethnicity, health status, home educational experiences, and child care histories. Some of these types of differences found at school entry were consistent with the differences noted in other national studies of older children (e.g., National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)) (Grigg et al. 2003; Braswell et al. 2001).

The second report, The Kindergarten Year (West, Denton, and Reaney 2001), showed that children considered at risk for school failure acquired many of the basic skills in reading and mathematics during their first year of school that they did not have when they began kindergarten. Consequently, by the spring of kindergarten, the majority of these children knew their letters, numbers, and shapes; about half made the connection between letter and sound at the beginning of words; and almost threequarters understood the mathematical concept of relative size (e.g., out of two objects, they could identify which object was longer). However, these children generally fell behind their more advantaged classmates in higher level knowledge and skills. Specifically, across the kindergarten year, the gap between disadvantaged children and other children widened in more advanced reading (e.g., recognizing words by sight) and mathematics skills (e.g., adding and subtracting).

The third report in this series, Children?s Reading and Mathematics Achievement in Kindergarten and First Grade (Denton and West 2002), focused on the status of children?s reading and mathematics achievement in the spring of kindergarten and the spring of first grade. It found that some of the differences in children?s reading and mathematics skills in relation to their race/ethnicity, federal poverty status, and school type that were present as they entered school had persisted through the spring of first grade. Differences also began to emerge in first grade that were not present during the kindergarten year, with girls more likely to be reading and boys more likely to demonstrate advanced mathematics proficiency. In contrast, some differences present in the kindergarten year began to wane in first grade, as Hispanic children?s scores tended to move toward the national mean from the start of kindergarten to the end of first grade.

This fourth report in the series highlights children?s gains in reading and mathematics over their first 4 years of school, from the start of kindergarten to the point when most of the children are finishing third grade.8 The report also describes children?s achievement in reading and mathematics at the end of third grade, both in terms of their overall achievement in the two subject areas and in terms of their specific reading and mathematics knowledge and skills. It examines whether differences in reading and mathematics achievement that were identified for certain groups of children in kindergarten and first grade persist 2 or 3 years later. Achievement is also compared for children with different early school experiences (i.e., attending full-day vs. half-day kindergarten programs, attending public vs. private schools from kindergarten through third grade) to explore whether such experiences are associated with later achievement.

Information on two new ECLS-K direct child assessments conducted in the spring of 2002 is included. In the third-grade year, children were administered cognitive assessments in science for the first time in place of the general knowledge assessments, which were used in the kindergarten and first-grade years. In addition, third-graders completed a questionnaire about their perceptions of their school experiences and their relations with other students. Prior to third grade, information about children?s social skills and socioemotional development came from the reports of their parents and teachers. More information on these two new instruments is provided in the Measures section of the Introduction.

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7 Several other federal agencies provide support for this study, including the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Head Start Bureau of the Administration on Children, Youth, and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, and the Office of Special Education Programs, the Office of English Language Acquisition, and the Policy and Programs Studies Service within the U.S. Department of Education.

8This report refers to data collected in the spring of 2002 as third-grade data and the sampled children as third-graders, although not all children in the analytic sample used for this report were enrolled in third grade. In the spring of 2002, about 89 percent of the children in the analytic sample were in third grade, 10 percent were in second grade, and about 1 percent were enrolled in other grades (e.g., first or fourth grade).
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