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WCER researchers find Wisconsin children unequally ready for kindergarten

September 29, 2017
by Wisconsin Center for Education Research communications

The class of 2030 has just started kindergarten. As four million youngsters across the country begin the first step of education, a new study provides a first-time look at inequalities in school readiness among Wisconsin’s kindergarten students.  Researchers from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), part of UW–Madison’s School of Education, compared the literacy skills of Wisconsin’s kindergarten students and found them “far from equally prepared to learn.”

“These findings are consistent with national research,” states Eric Grodsky, the WCER researcher and UW–Madison professor of sociology and educational policy studies who led the study. “A lot of the inequality we see when students begin taking standardized tests in third grade has its origins before students walk in the door to kindergarten.”

Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers agrees. “The persistent inequalities that exist in Wisconsin schools have roots that run deep," he states. "This study provides us with another confirmation of that fact. But our job as educators remains to hold all students to high expectations and provide them the support they need to reach their full potential.”

StudentsThe gaps between black and white Wisconsin students in high school graduation rates, and in fourth grade math and reading scores, are the widest in the nation.  Grodsky asserts that if the skills of all students could be developed equally by kindergarten, the academic achievement gaps identified in later years would decrease by at least half.

The study details are published in the first report of the largest statewide research collaboration to date between UW–Madison education researchers and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI).  The study is based on student population data of Wisconsin’s public schools from 2014 to 2016.  About 59,000 kindergarten students enroll in Wisconsin’s public schools each year.

Grodsky explains that given Wisconsin’s racial gaps in educational achievement, educators and state leaders are right to be concerned about early racial and ethnic disparities in education. However, he suggests that those disparities cannot be attributed to race alone.

“The racial gap in child poverty in Wisconsin is right up there with the gaps in academic achievement. If African American children were as financially well off as white kids in the state, we think those gaps in early literacy skills would go down by at least 60 percent.

“These new findings demonstrate that differences in student literacy skills most often are linked to economic disadvantages and social factors, rather than race or ethnicity.”

The researchers were able to analyze an abundance of longitudinal data collected from all Wisconsin public schools because of funding provided by a $5.2 million U.S. Department of Education grant jointly awarded to WCER and DPI through 2019.                                                                                                   

“We are fortunate to be partnering with colleagues at a state education agency that has done a tremendous job of assembling the kinds of data we need to understand how educational inequalities vary among children and over time," states Grodsky. "Part of what makes this project exciting, and what gives me hope that we can move the needle on education equality in this state, is the engagement and commitment of people at DPI from the top down.”

The data used in the study focused on five basic literacy skills:  recognizing sounds in words; knowledge of the alphabet; matching sounds with letters; and understanding and recognizing words.

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