Courtesy of the Hattiesburg American:
By Ellen Ciurczak
May 21, 2015

Kindergarten sure has changed, and the release Thursday of the results of Mississippi’s first statewide assessment of learning in kindergarten proves that.

“It used to be that kindergartners learned their colors, learned their name and took naps,” said Teresa Jenny, Lamar County School District’s federal programs director. “Those days are gone.”

The results of the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment show the majority of the state’s youngest students made significant gains this academic year.

More than 40,000 kindergartners from 144 districts took the STAR Early Literacy exam in the fall and again this spring. The average score for fall was 501. For spring, the average score climbed to 680.

“These scores show that teachers have been equipping children with the foundational reading skills that are needed to progress in school,” said Kim Benton, chief academic officer for Mississippi Department of Education. “Schools and teachers have been effective at helping students who start school unprepared to exit kindergarten with beginning reading skills.”

The idea behind the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment is to get kindergartners started with reading skills so they will be reading proficiently in third grade. Then they will be able to pass the third-grade reading assessment and move on to fourth grade.

Jenny said Lamar County kindergartners were taught such skills as phonemic awareness and how to write a paragraph.

“If you expose children to this, they can do it,” she said.

Lamar County kindergartners scored 532 in fall 2014. That score improved to 697 in spring 2015.

“Our kindergarten teachers have been working very hard in getting our kindergartners ready to be good readers,” Jenny said. “That’s a huge gain for our kindergartners.”

The spring score puts Lamar County kindergartners in the “transitional reader” range, associated with roughly 70 percent to 80 percent mastery of the assessed early literacy skills.

Forrest County School District scored 496 in fall 2014 and improved to 664 this spring. That puts its kindergartners in the late emergent range, where students can identify most of the letters of the alphabet, match them with sounds, read beginning picture books and build vocabularies.

District administrator Gina Gallant said she is pleased with the improvement.

“We think that is pretty good,” she said. “Students who score below 530 are not projected to master the skills on the third-grade reading assessment.”

Gallant said the kindergarten teachers worked very hard with the students to make sure they improved over the past year.

“At the beginning of the school year, we identified specific children who needed intense remediation,” she said. “Our teachers began to work with them in the classroom, and teachers pulled students out for remediation in small group settings.”

Gallant said thanks to the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, the district now knows which students still need extra help with reading.

“We know which students to target for specific reading instruction,” she said.

Hattiesburg Public School District Superintendent James Bacchus said he’s thankful to the state Department of Education for coming up with the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment.

“Once we have an assessment and something to work from, we can close the gap,” he said. “It’s going to be very helpful to make sure our kindergartners are reading (proficiently) at the end of third grade.”

The district started fall 2014 with a score of 481. It improved spring 2105 to a score of 658, late emergent.

Bacchus said the fall scores gave his teachers a starting point.

“Because we can be very intentional — the teachers are looking at the data and the indicators and making sure they see improvements along those lines,” he said.

Bacchus also said the first-grade teachers will have a starting point.

“It gives us a place to go in first grade,” he said. “We take the data to determine literacy improvements and growth.”

Jenny said Lamar County teachers will send a state Department of Education “read-at-home” plan with their young students for children and parents to work on over the summer.

Benton said summer work is essential.

“Child development research tells us that all children learn at a different pace,” she said. “Regardless of their score on this test, all children who complete kindergarten need support throughout the summer to continue developing their reading skills.”

The Hattiesburg American was unable to reach officials at Petal or Lumberton public school districts for comment.