Assessment Issues in the Testing of Children at School Entry

By Rock, Donald A.; Stenner, A. Jackson | The Future of Children, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Assessment Issues in the Testing of Children at School Entry


Rock, Donald A., Stenner, A. Jackson, The Future of Children


Summary

The authors introduce readers to the research documenting racial and ethnic gaps in school readiness. They describe the key tests, including the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT), the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), and several intelligence tests, and describe how they have been administered to several important national samples of children.

Next, the authors review the different estimates of the gaps and discuss how to interpret these differences. In interpreting test results, researchers use the statistical term "standard deviation" to compare scores across the tests. On average, the tests find a gap of about 1 standard deviation. The ECLS-K estimate is the lowest, about half a standard deviation. The PPVT estimate is the highest, sometimes more than 1 standard deviation. When researchers adjust those gaps statistically to take into account different outside factors that might affect children's test scores, such as family income or home environment, the gap narrows but does not disappear.

Why such different estimates of the gap? The authors consider explanations such as differences in the samples, racial or ethnic bias in the tests, and whether the tests reflect different aspects of school "readiness," and conclude that none is likely to explain the varying estimates. Another possible explanation is the Spearman Hypothesis--that all tests are imperfect measures of a general ability construct, g; the more highly a given test correlates with g, the larger the gap will be. But the Spearman Hypothesis, too, leaves questions to be investigated.

A gap of 1 standard deviation may not seem large, but the authors show clearly how it results in striking disparities in the performance of black and white students and why it should be of serious concern to policymakers.

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In study after study over the past ten years, researchers from a variety of fields using a variety of testing approaches have consistently found a gap between the readiness of white children and the readiness of black and Hispanic children to enter school. The concept of "readiness," however, has no obvious unit of measurement. Lacking such a tool, researchers have used a range of tests to measure different dimensions of the skills and behaviors --word comprehension, reading, math, the ability to sit still--that make a child "ready" to enter school. If a test is accurate, a child's score can be used to predict his future success or achievement. A student who is measured as more "ready" should have greater success in meeting the demands or challenges of school.

We begin by introducing the main tests that researchers have used to measure the readiness gap for children entering kindergarten. We then review the range of evidence that these studies have produced about the size of the gap. Perhaps not surprisingly, the evidence on the size of the gap differs somewhat from one study to the next, and we discuss how to interpret these differences. The articles that follow in this volume explore possible underlying causes of the readiness gap: family and neighborhood characteristics, genetic differences, neuroscience and early brain development, prenatal experiences, health of young children, and differences in parenting, child care, and early education.

How Can Readiness Be Assessed at Kindergarten Entry?

Many experts in the field suggest that it is difficult if not impossible to assess a child's academic performance accurately before age six. (1) Some studies have argued that scores on preschool or kindergarten readiness tests can predict no more than 25-36 percent of the variance in performance in early grades. (2) Even if these estimates are correct, predicting 25 to 36 percent of the variance in later achievement is not to be sneezed at. But we believe that readiness tests have improved substantially in the past decade or so and that the new tests are likely to provide a better measure of readiness. …

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