Children are expected to know how to hold and use a pencil, write their names and recognize the numbers on their bus by the time they get to school.
Teachers started observing what kindergarteners knew and could do at the beginning of the last academic year for a new state assessment designed to measure whether students are ready for kindergarten.
The results of the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, which were released Monday, show that most Illinois children need more help preparing for school.
Statewide, on average, only 24 percent of Illinois students were considered ready for the classroom expectations. Most metro-east school districts saw their students surpass that statewide average.
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But there were just six school districts in St. Clair, Madison, Monroe, Clinton or Randolph counties where at least half of the children were ready for kindergarten, according to the state data.
What is the new assessment?
Last year, teachers measured each student’s knowledge of subjects such as math in the first 40 days of school, when the state says a kindergartener should already know how to count, for example.
Students were also measured on how well they communicated. Being able to play with other children is another skill they’re expected to have.
State and local education officials say the survey gives them an idea of the early learning needs of their communities and possibly where they should send resources to help students.
“I think and I hope that it’s one of those nonpolitical issues that we can all get behind that we want our kids to be successful in kindergarten,” said Smithton School District 130 Superintendent Ryan Wamser.
Less than 10 percent of the students in Belle Valley School District 119 were considered ready for kindergarten, according to survey results. District 119 plans to use the information to adjust its curriculum to teach students what they need to know, Superintendent R.Dane Gale said in an email to the Belleville News-Democrat.
Elsewhere in the metro-east, Granite City’s Prather Elementary School wants to bring volunteers in to work with students specifically on numbers and letters, according to Principal Dottie Falter.
Educators also hope the new data gives families a better idea of the areas each child struggles with, so parents can support students at home.
Jackie Matthews, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education, said the state believes children who have early learning experiences that prepare them for school are more likely to graduate and even earn more money later in their careers.
Locally, Albers School District 63 in Clinton County had the most kindergarteners who were considered ready for school: 93 percent.
District 63 Superintendent Mike Toeben said families can enroll in a free preschool program in nearby Damiansville or in a pre-kindergarten program in Albers.
Because Albers’ program isn’t funded by the state, it costs families $180 per month. But Toeben said parents are willing to pay to make sure their children are prepared for kindergarten.
Expectations on kindergarteners are “much more rigorous” than they used to be, according to Toeben. He said the district has seen children struggle without some prep before they start school through programs such as pre-K or preschool.
“We notice that when we have kids move in from out of district,” Toeben said. “... It takes dedication from teachers, dedication from parents, from a community to put that early childhood education in the forefront.”
Another district that saw a high percentage of kindergarteners meeting the standards last year was St. Clair County’s Brooklyn School District 188.
In Brooklyn, 64 percent of kindergarteners were considered ready for school. District 188 Superintendent Ronald Ferrell said enrollment in the district’s state-funded pre-K program is “always high.”
Families in Brooklyn also have access to a Head Start program through Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, which helps parents who can’t afford childcare or schooling before kindergarten.
How does this translate to state test scores?
Albers has typically seen high state test scores when students begin taking those assessments in third grade. But Brooklyn’s students struggle with state tests.
Less than 5 percent of the students in Brooklyn are meeting the state’s standards for what they should know about English, language arts and math in elementary school and high school.
Ferrell said part of the problem is that the district has been using an outdated curriculum that wasn’t preparing students for the kinds of questions they were seeing on state tests such as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, also known as PARCC.
“We hadn’t had a new curriculum in 17 years,” Ferrell said.
Starting this school year, Ferrell said the district has new reading textbooks and materials, as well as more technology for students to use in their classrooms starting in kindergarten.
Students take the PARCC test electronically if their districts have access to technology. Ferrell said Brooklyn moved from paper and pencils to computers in the last school year, and students struggled with typing on the writing portion of the exam.
“It was a challenge last year, but we grew through it, and we’ll get better moving forward,” Ferrell said.
Based on the results of the kindergarten survey, he’s hopeful that Brooklyn’s test scores will improve.
“I expect within a couple of years that these kids will do extremely well when they get into third grade,” Ferrell said.
What options do parents have?
Nearly all of the local school districts at the elementary level offer a prekindergarten program. Those programs are typically only open to students who are considered at risk of being behind when they enter kindergarten, and space is limited.
There also are preschools and daycares that parents can pay to send their children to, or Head Start programs — such as the ones SIUE runs in Belleville, East St. Louis, Caseyville, Cahokia and Brooklyn — for low-income families.
Even without a formal program, the state says there are things parents can do to prepare children for kindergarten.
Granite City District 9 Superintendent Jim Greenwald said schools invited parents to come to the kindergarten classrooms with their children on their first day this year. It was an effort to help parents feel more comfortable and encourage them to get involved, according to Greenwald.
“We try to work very closely with our parents, especially at those lower levels, to make sure we have a partnership with the parents,” he said.
Online at isbe.net/KIDS, the Illinois State Board of Education published examples of activities parents can do at home to teach children what they need to know for school.
Families can count together; if they see three birds on a fence, each with two wings, they can explain that means there are six wings. They can practice writing by learning to spell the names of family and friends.
Educators say a large part of kindergarten is learning to socialize, so the state suggests teaching children to share and solve problems with other kids before they come to school for the first time.