Kindergarten top scorers eight times more likely to pass third-grade test

A test that all Ohio children take in kindergarten can predict with striking accuracy if they will be proficient readers by third grade, new research reveals.

The study of students in Columbus City Schools found that two-thirds of children who showed potential reading problems when tested in kindergarten later failed the reading portion of the third-grade Ohio Achievement Assessment (OAA).

Those students who had the highest scores on the kindergarten test (24 to 29 points) were eight times more likely to pass the third-grade OAA than those students who scored the lowest (0 to 13 points).

The study was published in a white paper by the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy (CCEC) at The Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology.

The researchers found that schools do have some impact on how well students fare on the third-grade test, but the effect was relatively small.

“In some ways, it is astonishing that we can predict so well in kindergarten how well kids will be able to read in third grade,” said Laura Justice, co-author of the study, executive director of the CCEC and distinguished professor of teaching and learning at Ohio State.

“The more important policy implication is what we do about this knowledge – what can we do to help those children whom we know in kindergarten will have trouble reading in third grade if we don’t intervene?”

Justice conducted the study with Jessica Logan and Jill Pentimonti, both research scientists at the CCEC.

The study used data on 11,515 students in the Columbus City Schools who entered kindergarten between 2005 and 2009.

All the students were administered the state-mandated Kindergarten Readiness Assessment for Literacy (KRA-L), which was developed by the state Department of Education to index children’s early reading skills.

Study confirms key premise of the law

In third grade, the students took the Reading Assessment component of the OAA. This test requires students to read a short text and answer a set of questions to see if they understood what they read.

Only students who are rated as “proficient readers” by these test results are supposed to be promoted to fourth grade, Justice said. This is part of the Third-Grade Reading Guarantee law enacted by the Ohio legislature.

This study was designed to test a key premise of that law: that a child who is ready to learn to read in kindergarten is more likely to achieve the third-grade reading guarantee, compared to a student who is not ready.

“We found that the premise of the law is correct – performance on the KRA-L test is a very good predictor of who will be reading proficient in third grade,” Justice said.

“Kindergarten readiness helps to guarantee, to a large extent, a student’s future reading success.”

 Schools' role: Create systematic approach for struggling readers

These results raise a host of issues, Justice said. One of the biggest may be the role of schools in helping students who show reading difficulties in kindergarten.

“We knew in large part in kindergarten which students were going to fail at reading four years later,” Justice said. “When teachers screen kids with the KRA-L, what do they do afterward to help those who need it? That is the key question we need to answer.”

This study found that 16 percent of the variance in students’ third-grade reading scores on the OAA was attributable to the school they attend.

“That suggests that the impact schools are having on children’s reading scores is not trivial, but it is still not very significant, either,” she said.

“With the results from the KRA-L, schools are in a position to intervene early and rigorously in a way that can probably shift the odds for many of these kids. There needs to be a systematic approach to helping these children.”

How to help kindergarteners who are not ready to read

Justice said this study provide some guidance about how to help kindergarten students who need the most help. The KRA-L has six subtests, each measuring different skills often seen as important to early reading.

The findings showed that three of these subtests were most important at predicting future reading success. The most important was letter identification.

“We have seen that in a lot of previous research. Kids who know more letters in kindergarten tend to be better readers later,” she said.

The other two subtests most related to later reading success were: the ability to give a word that sounds the same as another word (what is called “rhyming production”), and the ability to identify the beginning sounds of words.

“For most children who are having trouble reading in kindergarten, these are the areas that teachers should concentrate on to help them improve their skills,” Justice said.

Justice noted that this study demonstrates the effectiveness of the KRA-L test just as the state is getting ready to replace it with a new test, the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment. The KRA is intended to encompass more skills than those represented on the KRA-L.

Given that the effectiveness of the new test cannot be assessed for at least four years (when kindergarten students who take the test finish third grade), Justice said it makes sense to keep the KRA-L as a supplemental test.

However, the state does not have plans at this time to keep using the KRA-L, Justice said.

This study was the first in the CCEC White Paper series, to be published twice annually, which is designed to provide original research on pressing educational issues.

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