What is known about reading, and when

Nov. 9, 2015

Test results in one CMS kindergarten classroom of 5-year-olds in spring 2015, in a regular elementary school described as having a range of students in terms of socioeconomic status. Raw scores have been translated into skills levels generally exhibited by children of different ages. Results in this one classroom range from 2 years 3 months to 5 years 9 months. Source: CMS.

Test results in one CMS kindergarten classroom of 5-year-olds in spring 2015, in a regular elementary school described as having a range of students in terms of socioeconomic status. Raw scores have been translated into skills levels generally exhibited by children of different ages. Results in this one classroom range from 2 years 3 months to 5 years 9 months. Source: CMS.

There has been much talk about reading by third grade, and about reading readiness.

What members of the Swann board, meeting Oct. 8, wanted to know was: What does CMS already know about how its students are prepared for reading? When does it know what it knows? And with whom does it share the information? And on the biggest issue, here’s what we’ve learned:

Whether a child enters CMS at kindergarten or second grade or anywhere in between, CMS knows within no more than nine weeks a great deal about each child’s readiness to learn. Many teachers would probably say that THEY know within a matter of days.

The tools

The tools include both state-mandated assessments and other tests CMS uses on an optional basis. All data is available to the teacher, principal and administrators, both on an individual, classroom and school basis. All of the state-mandated test data is reported to the state, though most of it is not publicly released.

A project now underway by North Carolina and some other states would create a dataset for research purposes of all student data for years pre-K through 20. Critics worry that the project could allow a return to tracking – preventing students from taking advanced classes, for example.

Before Pre-K

Children are screened for pre-K during the spring before classes begin. Screenings are done at the Smith Family Center. They result in a report that assesses children as below average, average or above average on motor development, language development, academic development, self-help and social-emotional development.


Teachers are gathering impressions about pre-kindergarteners from their first day in the classroom. But the testing that leads to state reports begins at the end of the year for pre-kindergartners.

Both North Carolina Pre-K and Bright Beginnings children are assessed using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) at the end of the year. The PPVT measures receptive language and the PALS focuses on early indicators of reading proficiency, such as naming upper- and lower-case letters, recognizing beginning sounds, producing letter sounds, rhyming, name writing and concepts about print.

Both of these tests offer a good assessment of readiness.

Both tests are given to all students, but test results are collated in two or three lists. Why? The reasons are embedded in North Carolina’s two different programs for this age group, made even more complex by CMS operating a third group of pre-Ks:

– The N.C. pre-K program is based on family size and income and prioritizes children who have never had any formal child care or preschool experience. Classes are in mostly private child care and some nonprofit preschool centers.

– Bright Beginnings students are in programs at mostly Title 1 schools. Title I eligibility for children younger than kindergarten age is based on educational need, not income. Children whose screening results indicate the greatest need are placed first in Pre-K.

– Four CMS Montessori schools also operate pre-K classrooms, filled by lottery. The students do not take the screenings test. Results are kept separate for the N.C. pre-K students and the Bright Beginnings students because the eligibility criteria are different. N.C. pre-K students do not have to demonstrate an educational need, the results may not be comparable.

The three programs reach about 25%-30% of the age group countywide.

Are the results reliable? Probably. Exactly right? Unlikely, for at least two reasons:

Time is short: Two full-time staffers and several part-timers screen about 5,000-6,000 pre-K children each year, meeting one-on-one with the students.

And as any parent will tell you: Four-year-olds may vary from child to child and from day to day in their willingness to fully display their knowledge to a stranger in a one-on-one assessment.



The Kindergarten Entry Assessment is new in fall 2015. It includes assessments of “book orientation” – how to hold a book, which way is right side up, that text goes left to right, etc. A fair number of kindergartners have not yet absorbed these book awareness issues. The entry assessment also covers object counting.

First, second grades

Many of the skills tested in pre-K and kindergarten are tested again and again as children get older. Currently, CMS is using Reading 3D (known to older students as DIBELS) that tests for awareness of the names of letters, the sounds that letters or some combinations of letters make, reading comprehension and word recognition.

The tests also include ways to sniff out false positives. An example: Something called DORF Retell attempts to pinpoint what a child may be able to read, but can’t really understand.

As a general rule, teachers guide their own students, in the classroom, one-on-one, over a 15-day period. The tests are given three times per school year.

The three-times-per-year regimen gives staff some assurance that students develop a relationship with the adult doing the test, if not initially, then over the course of the year. Results should show progress over time and display each child’s proficiency with the basic building blocks of reading.

CMS has also opted into the Measures of Academic Progress tests.

The tests are given three times a year. Each of the two tests are given on separate days, and a whole classroom will take the test in a computer lab, each test taking about 45 minutes.

The Measures of Academic Progress is a nationally normed program, allowing CMS to check its progress not only against N.C. students but the national cohort.

The test results for each student include a list of “skill deficits,” allowing a teacher to put children needing similar remedial work into a group to focus on that skill.

For the first time this year, principals in K-2 have the option not to use the Measures of Academic Progress. Many such principals chose to give the math, but not the reading, believing that they already had sufficient information about reading progress.

Areas for further discussion

(1) It’s clear that, for many of the children least ready for the classroom, CMS knows about their readiness level months before they even enter a pre-K classroom. So any claim that children later fall through the cracks is a leaky argument.

(2) Parents of three-quarters of the children in the pre-K age group are either not applying for the various pre-K programs, or are not being placed due to lack of funding. Shame on us for not ensuring that all children who need this boost toward school success have access to it.

(3) A graphic published in this space earlier reported on the distribution of readers, Levels 1 through 5, at schools throughout the county. The graphic showed that there were Level 1 readers at every single elementary school.

(4) For parents and others who doubt that classrooms full of below-average readers will create many success stories, even this abbreviated synopsis makes it clear that CMS has the information to create mixed classrooms in which above-average readers can help below-average readers catch up. Lawyers knowledgeable about student assignment believe that using reading as a basis for assignment to schools, to prevent concentration of high-needs students, would be “unassailable” from a legal point of view.

(5) With the exception of pre-K screening results, all of the test data discussed above already is shared with the state. Little of it is shared with the public. If sharing information on a public problem would help galvanize public support for improvements, perhaps more, not less, testing data should be aggregated and reported.

(6) Testing takes time away from teaching. Striking the balance is subject to debate. The debate should continue.

(7) Classroom disruptions are often cited by parents as creating unhealthy learning environments. In discussing the testing, there was some discussion about the impact of mental health problems, but also about drug abuse, in all schools, and the part that drugs and mental health play in classroom management; and that teachers are really not trained to deal with these issues; and that even most school counselors are not so trained; and that four private companies now have staff operating in 30 schools, but funds for this purpose have been being cut by county commissioners.

(8) The role that trauma plays in classroom management was discussed. Trauma among students may include not just physical abuse out of school or at home, but also destabilizing family events like eviction. And the labels used for such children can be discriminatory: Poor children tend to be labeled oppositional or defiant and are disciplined; middle class children tend to be labeled ADHD and receive treatment.

(9) Teach for America was not discussed, but there was general agreement that first-year teachers, whether from education programs or lateral entry or other sources, are mostly unprepared to deal with management of students from backgrounds different from their own.

(10) The following were offered as statistically real, and significant: Given two comparable low-income students in a high-needs school, if one stays in the high-needs school and the other moves to a lower-needs school, the one who moves will progress more rapidly. Students thrive when they have highly effective teachers three years in a row. A student who has an ineffective teacher for a year can be set back two grade levels.

(11) There was a comment that one school put its teachers on a bus for a tour of the neighborhoods in which their students live. Fair enough. But some others commented that there was a time when all teachers were expected to visit the living rooms of every one of their students each fall.

– Steve Johnston