New Study Examines Kindergarten Entry Assessments and Their Young English Learner-Relevant Policies
Results have implications for policymakers and kindergarten teachers

Contact: Tom Ewing           Phone: 1-609-233-0090         Email: mediacontacts@ets.org

Princeton, N.J. (Oct. 9, 2018) – Amidst a growing population of dual language or English learners (ELs) entering the nation’s kindergartens, a study from Educational Testing Service (ETS) provides help to teachers and policymakers charged with selecting and using kindergarten entry assessments to determine what students know and can do.

The new report, “Comparing the Potential Utility of Kindergarten Entry Assessments to Provide Evidence of English Learners’ Knowledge and Skills,” is authored by Debra J. Ackerman, Lead Research Project Manager at ETS’s Policy Evaluation and Research Center. It is the seventh in a series of early childhood education policy reports that explore issues related to improving instruction and the use of assessment and data in programs serving children ages 0–5.

Ackerman reviewed a sample of nine purposely selected state kindergarten entry assessments (KEAs) and their policies. She sought to determine to what extent they contain test items that are specific to ELs, allow or mandate the use of linguistic accommodations, and have policies on assessor or observer linguistic capacity. She also looked at the degree to which research supports the use of these measures with EL students.

Various models of KEAs are being developed, piloted, or implemented in 40 states and the District of Columbia. They are generally administered in the first few months of kindergarten. They often include a family survey or meeting to help teachers learn more about a student’s background, such as their prior learning experiences in group settings, Ackerman writes. Some are commercially available or state-developed models and the role of the kindergarten teacher in the assessment process varies.

The study’s sample included the following KEAs:

The study’s results suggest that these nine KEAs have substantive differences in their EL-relevant content, linguistic accommodations and stated assessor/observer policies, and measure validity and observer reliability research. The result is three different profiles along a less-to-more content, accommodations and research continuum, Ackerman notes.

For example, Profile A is located on the less side of the continuum and consists of KEAs used in Florida, Mississippi and Utah. While students may hear the directions for completing Florida and Mississippi’s respective computer-administered KEAs in their home language, none of these three KEAs include EL-focused items, allow any score item prompts to be translated, or provide students with the option to use their home language to respond to any KEA questions.

Profile C is on the more end of the continuum and consists of California’s DRDP-K and Illinois’ KIDS. Both observational measures contain an English-language development domain, with four items focusing on expressive and receptive vocabulary and early literacy skills. The scoring rubric for this domain reflects the development span of young children’s second language acquisition and use as well. In addition, with the exception of the EL-conditional items, both measures allow children to use whichever language(s) they speak to display their skills and knowledge, and there are related policies regarding observers’ linguistic capacity.

Profile B represents the KEAs with a mix of both less and more attributes. For example, Oregon’s KEA does not currently have EL-specific items. However, all of the measures’ direct item prompts may be translated and EL students may demonstrate their math skills and knowledge in their home language. The state provides Spanish translations and has specific policies regarding the assessors’ linguistic capacity as well. Pennsylvania’s observational KEA does not have EL-specific items either, but EL students may use any language to display what they know and can do for nearly all of the items.

This “less and more” Profile B also applies to Delaware and Washington’s observational KEAs, Ackerman explains. The Early Learner Survey contains a two-item English- language acquisition domain, whereas Washington’s teachers have the option to use these items. In addition, Washington’s Spanish bilingual kindergarten classroom teachers have the option to replace English literacy items with those focused on Spanish literacy. However, both measures limit the items for which EL students may use their home language to display their knowledge and skills.

“Although being bilingual, or having the ability to speak and understand two languages, can benefit young children’s learning and development, data shows gaps in EL kindergarteners’ early reading and math skills compared to their non-EL peers,” Ackerman writes. “KEAs have the potential to mitigate these emerging gaps by highlighting kindergarteners’ strengths and areas needing more support and, in turn, informing teachers’ practice.”

“However,” she warns, “various construct-irrelevant issues can challenge the validity and reliability of KEA data. Moreover, although a variety of socioeconomic factors contribute to ELs’ unequal academic outcomes, one critical contributor is teachers’ capacity to effectively respond to their learning needs.”

“Of course, my three profiles do not represent a definitive judgment regarding the in-practice utility of these measures for informing kindergarten teachers’ instruction of their EL students,” Ackerman says. “At the same time, if an aim of collecting KEA data is to produce valid and reliable evidence of what EL kindergartners know and can do, the results of this study suggest that the nine sampled measures many not offer comparable levels of utility.”

Ackerman also notes that, because research data can potentially help policymakers evaluate whether education policies and practices are adequate for supporting EL students’ academic outcomes, the study’s results also suggest three areas for future research. They are research on the:

  • validity of KEAs for determining what EL kindergartners know and can do and rater reliability when observing EL students.
  • extent to which the use of the direct linguistic support accommodations described in the study contribute to the validity and reliability of a KEA for informing teachers’ EL instruction.
  • on-the-ground, practical utility of these KEAs for informing teachers’ EL-focused instruction and policies aimed at supporting EL students’ academic outcomes.

“This study expands our understanding of the potential utility of KEA data to provide evidence of EL kindergartners’ knowledge and skills. Such an understanding is useful given the widespread adoption of KEAs across the United States over the past six years as well as the growing number of ELs entering the nation’s schools. Although KEAs have the potential to inform teachers’ EL-focused instruction and policymakers’ efforts to close school readiness gaps, these measures need to be credible if they are to provide sufficient evidence for these purposes,” adds Michael Nettles, ETS Senior Vice President and Edmund W. Gordon Chair of Policy Evaluation and Research.

“The results of the current study demonstrate that merely selecting a KEA may not necessarily accomplish either goal. Instead, policymakers, assessment developers, researchers and kindergarten teachers should have a role in the process of developing items aimed at demonstrating what EL kindergartners know and can do,” Nettles adds.

Copies of the report are available from Wiley Online or at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ets2.12224


About ETS

At ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and postsecondary education, and by conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded as a nonprofit in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually — including the TOEFL® and TOEIC® tests, the GRE® tests and The Praxis Series® assessments — in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide. www.ets.org

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