School changes for Nebraska kids when they hit the third grade.

For the first time, the state asks them to fill in hundreds of ovals in the name of state testing.

But is the third grade — when students are 8 and 9 years old — too late?

State officials and education advocates think the state should assess students in kindergarten.

A “kindergarten readiness assessment” would take place over six to eight weeks and would be given once the student is already in kindergarten, said Melody Hobson, an early childhood administrator with the Nebraska Department of Education.

The assessment would cover a range of areas, with teachers observing students on the playground and in the classroom.

And the assessment would not, its advocates say, be a typical state test.

“We’re not talking about a child sitting down with a bubble sheet who is going to get a pass or fail grade,” said Sarah Ann Kotchian, director of early childhood policy at Building Bright Futures, an Omaha education philanthropy.

The test would have no impact on who gets into kindergarten, Kotchian said. If a student does poorly on parts of the test, she said, school staff could target those areas the rest of the year.

State Sen. Greg Adams, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee, has tucked the idea into an interim study on early childhood programs.

But not all educators are so sure about the idea.

Some say they’re already giving similar assessments. Why duplicate it, they ask?

Another issue is cost. State officials say developing and implementing the test will cost more than $2.7 million.

“We really don’t know until children are in third grade how all children are doing in our state,” Hobson said. “It would be easier to intervene earlier if we had some systematic information for all kids.”

Maryland implemented its readiness assessment 11 years ago, said Rolf Grafwallner, Maryland assistant state superintendent for early childhood development.

During the first two months of the school year, teachers observe and take notes on the students’ behavior and score the kindergartners in seven areas: literacy, physical development, social studies, science, math, the arts and social and personal development.

“The point is to see if the child, after two months of being in kindergarten, can successfully engage in kindergarten,” Grafwallner said.

About 25 states, including Iowa, have some sort of readiness test for kindergartners, and four other states also are developing assessments, according to an August 2010 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Iowa’s public schools give kindergartners a literacy assessment during the first six weeks, said a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education.

Some Omaha metro districts, including Millard and Omaha, give their own reading and math assessments for kindergartners during the first few months of the school year.

“I feel like we’re doing that,” Donna Dobson, director of elementary education for the Omaha Public Schools, said of a readiness test.

OPS teachers, with information from the assessments, group students who need help in similar areas, Dobson said.

Maryland also used to let districts give their own tests, Grafwallner said, but the state ultimately decided there was too much variation among its 23 county systems and the Baltimore City Public Schools.

Nebraska has 251 school districts.

A broader, statewide kindergarten assessment “would be a very powerful tool to inform us as teachers,” said Sarah Valasek, a Castelar Elementary kindergarten teacher for the past seven years.

The test should be developmentally appropriate and standardized in its content and distribution to students, she said.

About 1,150 metro Omaha kids have taken or will take a readiness assessment this summer as part of the kindergarten jump-start program put on by the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

The Bracken School Readiness Assessment, with its pages of pictures, tests students on colors, letters, numbers, sizes and shapes.

It does not measure social or physical development, said Lisa St. Clair, an assistant professor at the Munroe-Meyer Institute on the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus, but the Bracken test could be a start for the state.

Maryland’s school readiness system also gathers information from parents on what kids did before kindergarten: Stay at home? Attend a private preschool? Take part in Federal Head Start?

Parsing that information has helped officials identify the best pre-kindergarten pathways and help work with organizations who have been less successful at preparing kids for kindergarten, Grafwallner said.

In Nebraska, similar information is lacking.

The State Education Department tracks kids in early-childhood programs run by school districts or educational service units: In 2011, that was about 10 percent of the state’s 3-year-olds and 27 percent of its 4-year-olds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

The majority of them, we don’t know what kind of experience they’re having before they enter schools,” said Kotchian of Building Bright Futures.

In the 2001-02 school year, 49 percent of Maryland kindergartners were deemed ready. Last fall, that number was 83 percent.

Maryland officials are studying how being “ready” in kindergarten translates to state test scores in later grades.

Nebraska officials plan to continue studying the idea.

We’re trying to learn as much as possible in case this is something that becomes a priority in the future,” said Hobson, with the Nebraska Department of Education. “There’s a limited amount of actual work we can do if there’s no funding and no political will for this.”

By Jonathon Braden

Source: Omaha World-Herald –