Only A Quarter Of Illinois Kindergartners Are Ready For School

Chicago Public Schools, pre-school, Susie An/WBEZ
New state data shows that just 24 percent of Illinois kindergartners are ready for school. Susie An/WBEZ / WBEZ
Chicago Public Schools, pre-school, Susie An/WBEZ
New state data shows that just 24 percent of Illinois kindergartners are ready for school. Susie An/WBEZ / WBEZ

Only A Quarter Of Illinois Kindergartners Are Ready For School

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New numbers released by the Illinois State Board of Education Monday suggest that a mere 24 percent of kindergartners in Illinois are actually ready for school, a startlingly low number, advocates say.

The numbers give the first-ever statewide picture of how prepared Illinois five-year-olds are for the routines and rigors of school. State officials and early childhood education advocates, including many who pushed for the readiness measure to be developed and made public, say the low numbers underscore the importance of early childhood education.

“The data shows that we have a lot of work to do,” said Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews. “The state is really talking about how we can increase investments in early learning because this is such a critical time for children.”

This is the first time Illinois school districts are seeing performance results for students younger than third grade, which is when the federal government mandates students be tested and schools’ scores publicly reported.

The “kindergarten readiness” results are based on classroom evaluations by the state’s kindergarten teachers of 106,670 students in the first 40 days of school in 2017. A total of 132,380 were enrolled in kindergarten that year.

Over the course of their normal activities, the teachers graded students on their language and literacy, math and social and emotional development as part of the Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS). To be considered “ready” for kindergarten, students had to meet standards in all three areas.

Illinois children were least prepared in mathematics, with just 30 percent of kindergartners deemed ready for school in that area. Matthews said parents know they should read to their children, but they may be less aware of how to give them a good foundation in math, she said, “things like identifying shapes, talking about the world around them, counting, sorting.”

Students were best prepared in the area of social and emotional development, with 49 percent demonstrating readiness. Some 44 percent were deemed ready in language and literacy. In Chicago, 22 percent of students demonstrated readiness in all three areas, the state reported.

The data also show that a well-documented achievement gap between rich and poor kids exists before kindergarten. On average, kids who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches were 14 percentage points behind their higher-income peers on school readiness.

Until recently, America’s education system has essentially considered children ready for school when they were five years old, but early childhood experts say that’s far too late to think about childhood development, particularly as expectations for later school achievement ratchet up.

Illinois is joining about two dozen other states in calculating readiness for kindergarten. Many states have deemed around half their students prepared for school, but measures are not comparable across states, and cutoff scores that determine who is ready vary widely.

Calculating readiness for kindergarten can be fraught, said Geoffrey Nagle, CEO and president of Chicago’s Erikson Institute, a graduate school for early childhood development.

“It’s very difficult to do,” Nagle said. “Child development at the earliest ages is an incredibly dynamic process, and you may surge in one area of development and regress in another. So to pick a point in time and assess and say, ‘Are you ready for kindergarten today?’ Well, it kind of depends on the day that they’re doing the assessment and what they’re asking.”

But Nagle says there’s no disagreement that an “alarming number” of children in the state are not prepared for kindergarten. He says that should be a call to action to build a comprehensive system that supports children and their families.

“This is bigger than just pre-K,” Nagle said. “It’s not just early education, it’s early experience.”

He says that means supporting parents through efforts like paid parental leave, looking harder at the quality of care offered by infant and toddler daycare centers, and keeping communities free of violence.

Preschool in the state was cut in 2010 amidst the budget crisis. Since then, lawmakers have ramped funding up again — though a recent state allocation slashed some established programs in needy Illinois communities. Many preschool programs in the state are still just 2-1/2 hours. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently made a bold election-year promise: free preschool for every 4-year-old in the city, to be achieved by 2021.

While the state is releasing district-by-district kindergarten readiness scores, officials caution teachers are still learning how to use the evaluation tool and enter results. “We do want to look at this data with a little bit of a grain of salt,” Matthews said.

Linda Lutton is an education reporter at WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation or @lindalutton.