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Oregon Kindergarten Assessment stresses importance of preschool

The state has released its first assessment of early learning in kindergartners in an effort to show the need for funding preschool education as a foundation for later success in school and in life.

The statewide testing, done in the first weeks of school last fall, was designed to quantify the contribution of Head Start, licensed child care facilities and other early-childhood caregivers who get state support, said Jada Rupley, Early Learning Systems director for Gov. John Kitzhaber and now in the state Department of Education.

Students were shown a chart with 100 letters and were asked to identify as many as they could within 60 seconds. They were also shown a chart with 110 letters and letter combinations and were asked to produce as many letter sounds as they could within 60 seconds. Results represent the average number of letter names and letter sounds students named correctly.

In math, students were given 16 simple math questions on addition, subtraction, patterns and number recognition and were asked to point at the correct answer. Results represent the average number of questions a student got correct.

For Jackson County, results showed socio-economic factors played a role in the skill levels kindergartners brought to school, said Southern Oregon Head Start Director Nancy Nordyke.

Ashland kindergartners led in math, with an average of 9.4 out of 16 questions answered correctly, 23.8 letter names identified in 60 seconds and 7.9 letter sounds named in 60 seconds.

By comparison, Medford kindergartners averaged 7.9 in math, 16 in letter names and 6 in letter sounds. Phoenix-Talent, with a large percentage of bilingual learners, averaged 7.3 correct math questions, 13.5 letter names and 4.9 letter sounds.

"It's clear evidence that poverty very much affects children's ability to do well in school," Nordyke said. "It's part of the reason there's such a push for early learning. Ashland is a very much higher economic area — and they had only 17 immigrant kindergartners, while Phoenix-Talent had 63. It skews the results ... but dual-language learners pick up many more skills later on because it's a real advantage to cognitive abilities."

The scores will serve as the foundation for setting up regional "hub" networks of early learning teachers and administrators, responsible for integrating preschool learning systems and upping scores, Nordyke said. The process will coordinate kindergartners and early-learning providers for a smooth transition, she adds.

The state will give out "stars" (up to five) to early learning centers and seek to get them all up to highest levels, Rupley said.

"Early childhood education is important because children are learning way before they get to kindergarten," Rupley said, noting that the social experience of pre-school also helps with success later.

Pre-school education results in higher grades and better skills in public school and, Nordyke said, for every dollar spent on pre-school, society saves $7 in higher wages, lower crime, less teen pregnancy and better health in later life.

Nordyke cited "significant drawbacks" in the data, noting the testing was launched on short notice and administered by teachers not known to the children — and would have been more useful if done at the end of the year when kids have hit their stride.

Medford School Board member Marlene Yesquen, a member of the governor's Early Learning Council, was the child of Peruvian immigrants and said her Head Start experience played a big role in launching her into Lewis & Clark Law School and her present career as a lawyer.

"My parents didn't have the skills, as immigrants to the U.S.," Yesquen said. "I definitely think Head Start gave me the foundation I needed to access a great education. Expert studies have found that with early learning, you get opportunity for better reading, comprehension and success in school. This assessment will tell us ... are they prepared? Are they ready to perform at kindergarten and beyond?"

With the Early Learning Council, she said, the governor "is trying to make sure there's a statewide coordinated system and that all our resources are being used effectively, with all parts of the program working together."

Of the 45,000 kids entering kindergarten last fall in Oregon, only 12,000 were "lucky enough" to get into Head Start, Nordyke said. The program has a long waiting list, she adds.

Head Start's goal is to have kids reading by third grade, she said, adding, "We're not doing well" at it in Oregon now, but "will get there" using the hub network, the star system and involving parents starting when kids are age 3.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.