Learning from early childhood assessments

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Speak with early childhood experts long enough, and they will inevitably compare kids to sponges. Bombarded with new experiences, their brains soak up information from a sea of sensory inputs. Cultivating learning during that earliest stage can make all the difference years down the line. 

For most children, standard preschool instruction and play does the trick, while others need a more individualized boost. But identifying when a young kid needs extra help is messy business. 

Experts lean on screening metrics and classroom observation to flag children who might need interventions. One screening tool used by the Rochester City School District and across New York is the Brigance assessment, which gauges indicators of various aspects of childhood development and weighs kids’ progress against their age cohort. 

The Rochester City School District released the Brigance scores of its fall 2022 kindergartners at the school board’s Jan. 17. Equity in Student Achievement committee meeting—and the figures indicated that most of the kindergartners assessed scored below satisfactory levels.

“The Brigance is really helpful because, as compared to some other screening tools that can give us very specific signals, the Brigance kind of gives us a big picture on a lot of different domains or dimensions of development,” says Ann Marie White, executive director of the Children’s Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Rochester that partners with community agencies and schools to provide a variety of support to those who work with children.

By the numbers

The data presented last week show that more than 68 percent of the kindergartners assessed scored a Level 1 or Level 2—below a Level 3 score that indicates a student is “functioning in normal range.” But the data can be tricky. 

While all RCSD preschoolers are administered the Brigance assessment, kindergartners are assessed only if they are new entrants to the district or if they scored a Level 1 or Level 2 in pre-K.

The preschoolers’ scores predictably show a more diverse distribution. While the kindergarten data is not consistently released publicly, the preschool figures are packaged in the Rochester Early Childhood Assessment Partnership annual reports assembled by the Children’s Institute.

Robin Hooper, RCSD’s executive director of early childhood, says the Brigance data is used in a myriad ways to direct families to individualized treatment. Parents may be referred to speech, hearing, or vision specialists, or teachers may use the information to note curriculum areas in which a student is struggling. Though Brigance assessments are not diagnostic, they flag students who may need additional aid, and the district acts as a point person to direct families in the aid’s direction.

The RCSD School Board shared Brigance assessment data at a recent meeting. (Photo: Henry Litsky)

Community factors

White says these metrics, along with others, also help gauge how a host of community factors may be impacting childhood development. Education is one factor, but others like poverty, housing insecurity, exposure to violence, grieving due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact, and access to playtime all impact the pace of childhood development as well. For better or worse, kids are indeed like sponges.

At the RCSD board meeting, Vice President Beatriz Lebron raised concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic in particular may play into the most recent kindergarten figures.

The 2021-2022 RECAP report notes that the pandemic’s impact on metrics has been somewhat mixed. “Absolute developmental gains” observed among four-year-old preschoolers were lower than pre-pandemic levels, but a “remarkable ‘catch up’” was observed among three-year-olds. All of this comes amid “much lower” preschool attendance rates. White also says that the pandemic has presented a risk to classroom instruction quality given the impact of economic upheaval on the training and compensation of early childhood educators.

“All of that has been threatened and eroded during COVID. Especially if we have more churn, we have more new teachers coming in that haven’t taught before,” she says. “So, we need time to develop that system out, but our data does show that last year the system held steady despite that churn, which shows resilience and is really remarkable.”

This trend has been reported on and researched by experts nationwide who conclude that the pandemic hurt early childhood education. In addition to declining enrollment, students had reduced learning time, reflecting a shortage of teachers and staff. The 2021 State of Preschool Report published last year found that enrollment in state-funded preschools declined by 20 percent, with drops among children from low-income families. 

Need for support

Lebron also disclosed that her grandson had scored at Level 1 on the assessment, and that, in spite of her school board position, she had experienced difficulties in figuring out how to follow up given the results. She expressed empathy for the challenges faced by families with fewer connections to the school system, and highlighted the need for institutional support.

White and Hooper also underscored this need. They both commended ROC the Future’s Whole Child Initiative, which is a cross-institutional coalition aimed at correcting ineffective local parental and child support systems.

Driven by its Parent Voice Survey conducted early last year, the initiative intends to take a stakeholder-centered approach to identifying gaps and attempts to address them by bridging dozens of relevant local institutions. The initiative was launched in 2022, which served as a planning year, and may generate improvements in the quality of the city’s early childhood support ecosystem in years to come.

Just as early childhood assessment has to be holistic, White and Hooper say early childhood support institutions also must be able to accommodate every aspect of development. White says that ensuring parents are connected with the correct institutions for their needs should be a top priority.

“The answer isn’t gonna lie just in the pre-K system or the kindergarten system. It’s gonna say what we all need to be doing to close equity gaps,” White says.

Hooper and White also emphasize the importance of extending this support ecosystem to younger children.

“I do think we need to start earlier, even though it’s not the work of public schools to go down to the prenatal and before-three-year-old level,” says Hooper. “From all my years of working with prekindergarten and our prekindergarten programs—even though our students make extraordinary growth while they’re in the program—it’s not enough to bring them up to where they need to be, because when they begin they’re beginning developmentally lower in a lot of cases.”

Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at the University of Rochester. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “Learning from early childhood assessments

  1. Good work Justin on a topic that really receives any community attention. As a literacy specialist, I would like to see more written about how these assessments help to guide teaching and student growth. It’s one of the sad aspects of assessments of any kind. The question is: so what are we going to do now:

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