Nearly every kindergartner in Montgomery County knows how to read. That wasn't the case just five years ago in Maryland's largest school system or, literacy experts say, in most of the nation's public schools.

By pushing for all children to read before the start of first grade, Montgomery school leaders have embraced an emerging goal in public education. In essence, kindergarten has become the new first grade.

Kindergarten used to be mostly about play: singing songs, "housekeeping" in a Little Tikes kitchen and being read to. That is changing largely because of full-day kindergarten, which has swept the nation's public schools in the past 20 years, stretching the instructional day from 2 1/2 hours to six.

The new kindergarten is partly a societal concession to busy two-income families and partly a response to the growing sense that 5-year-olds are ready for formal study. Full-day kindergarten is required in the District and several states, including Maryland, where it is mandatory as of the fall. Virginia does not require it.

And No Child Left Behind, with its focus on minority reading achievement, has ratcheted up pressure for kindergarten "to be more academic," said Marcia Invernizzi, a University of Virginia professor who oversees a statewide literacy assessment.

Last spring, nearly 90 percent of kindergarteners in Montgomery passed a simple test that required them to read a short storybook, which would have been unthinkable in the county a decade ago. The percentage of kindergarten readers has more than doubled in five years.

In Arlington County schools last spring, 88 percent of kindergartners passed a beginning-reading test developed at the University of Virginia; 86 percent passed in Stafford County; and 90 percent, in Clarke County. In Virginia as a whole, 82 percent passed in spring 2006, compared with 78.5 percent in 2003.

No recent statistics indicate how many of the nation's students are reading when they exit kindergarten, and many school systems do not track the reading skills of kindergartners. But literacy experts say progress is clear. Historical data suggest about 15 percent of kindergartners were reading a decade ago and fewer than 5 percent a generation earlier.

"Traditionally, first grade has been seen as the grade where you teach kids to read," said Jennifer Turner, an assistant professor of elementary reading at the University of Maryland. "That curriculum was basically a first-grade curriculum. And now it's a kindergarten curriculum."

On a recent morning at Bel Pre Elementary School in Montgomery, kindergarten teacher Lauren Herdrich wrote the word "little" on the board. Then she wrote "Little" and scanned her pupils for knitted brows.

"Is that going to trick us?" she asked the group of children gathered around a U-shaped table. "No, it's not going to trick us. It's still the same word."

Montgomery's quest for kindergarten literacy dovetailed with the move to full-day instruction, phased in between 2000 and 2006 in the 140,000-student system. Full-day study made it possible to offer 90 minutes or more of daily reading instruction, which has become standard. School officials also lowered average class size from 25 to 15 at high-poverty schools. And the system began testing whether students in kindergarten, first grade and second grade were able to read.

In the half-day era, Montgomery, like most public school systems, expected little from kindergartners. Children "were not explicitly taught letters and sounds, much less how to read," an internal school-system report says.

"We were shooting way too low," School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said. Kindergartners are "natural learners," he said. "And if we don't provide them with a natural learning environment, we are putting them behind."

Pass rates on the county's kindergarten reading test went from 39 percent in 2001 to 59 percent in 2002 and 81 percent in 2005, prompting talk that the assessment might be too easy.

As scores have climbed, the achievement gap between white and Asian kindergartners on the one hand and black and Hispanic kindergartners on the other has evaporated. By spring 2006, no minority posted a success rate lower than 85 percent on the reading test.

That kind of success hasn't yet translated to the higher grades. About three-quarters of first-graders passed their reading test last spring, and 55 percent of second-graders passed a new assessment that school officials say is particularly demanding. There was a racial achievement gap in both grades.

In Montgomery, second-grade scores have risen steadily on the national Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills. Researchers said the scores are strong evidence that the county's strategy is working. But they cautioned that school systems must offer rigorous instruction beyond kindergarten if they want to see students reading at grade level three or four years later.

Stafford County went to full-day kindergarten in 1995, adopted higher standards and began testing kindergarten reading skills in 2001. Since then, the proportion of kindergartners reading simple books has risen from 78 to 86 percent.

"I cannot even imagine how we could provide all the literacy, math, science and social studies curricular goals we have now in a half-day of instruction," said Nancy Guth, supervisor of literacy and humanities in Stafford schools.

Seventeen of 24 Maryland school systems, including Prince George's County, have embraced full-day kindergarten. The others, including Anne Arundel and Howard counties, will complete the switch in the fall, state officials said.

D.C. schools have had full-day kindergarten for several years. Full-day study is not mandated in Virginia but has spread, for instance, to half the elementary schools of Fairfax County.

In the past 30 years, the proportion of students attending full-day kindergarten nationwide has grown from about 25 percent to well over half, federal data show.

That trend, coupled with the belief that kindergarten instructional time was being squandered, prompted "a very strong movement over the last 20 years about doing more things, more reading and writing, at kindergarten," said Timothy Shanahan, an education professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and past president of the International Reading Association.

Every morning at Bel Pre Elementary, Herdrich and her pupils read the daily lesson plan aloud from a poster-size sheet of lined paper. One wall of the classroom has become the Word Wall, covered with 89 laminated terms the class has memorized during the school year.

Diagnostic tests allow Herdrich and other county kindergarten teachers to sort pupils into small groups according to various measures of literacy, all tracked on Palm Pilots they use to score the tests.

On a recent morning, Herdrich tested a girl as she read "Wake Up, Father Bear," a book that contains a few dozen words. The text is heavy on repetition and light on plot: "Baby bear is up. Mother bear is up. Father bear is in bed. Baby bear is in bed."

More than 90 percent of pupils of every race passed the kindergarten reading test last spring at Bel Pre, where half the students qualify for federal meal subsidies.

Kindergarten teachers in Montgomery said they can meet their literacy goal even with students who barely speak, let alone read, when they arrive for kindergarten in the fall. Why? Because the goal is modest, the pace of kindergarten relatively slow and class time plentiful.

Laura Justice, an associate education professor at the University of Virginia, said reading is much like riding a bicycle: Once a child learns, "it's hard to disrupt that positive trajectory."

Source: Washington Post –