Though graduation rates seem like the most obvious way to measure student progress, the key to success starts many years earlier.

The Oregon Kindergarten Assessment, a statewide test now in its fourth year, is given to each kindergartner within the first few days of entering public school.

On average, an incoming Oregon kindergartner recognizes more than 14 uppercase and 12 lowercase letters and can identify the sounds that about eight of those letters make. When asked 16 simple math questions, the students could answer about 11.

In many Eastern Oregon school districts, however, the numbers are far lower. Only Pendleton and Athena-Weston students tested higher than the state average in all four categories. In Milton-Freewater, the average student entered school only able to identify about two letter sounds and in many districts the average kindergartner knew fewer than 10 uppercase and lowercase letters by sight.

The results serve as a baseline for progress made throughout a student’s school career, and highlight some of the challenges in early elementary classrooms.

The numbers

Hot off the heels of strong graduation scores, the Pendleton School District’s youngest students were also showing above-average performances.

In every assessment subject, Pendleton students scored higher than the state average. In English letter sound recognition, Pendleton kindergartners scored a 10.2, more than 2.5 points higher than the stage average.

Matt Yoshioka, Pendleton School District’s director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, attributed the success not only to the community and parents’ willingness to provide their children with the fundamentals before kindergarten, but local educators as well.

When the Pendleton Early Learning Center opened in 2015, it promised to better integrate early education by having centralized kindergarten and Head Start classes all under one roof.

As a part of the consolidation, the district created its own two-class preschool and Yoshioka said the district is now starting to see results.

Yoshioka said Sarah Leonard, the district’s preschool teacher, meets with the kindergarten staff on a weekly basis to make sure her curriculum is aligned with theirs, ensuring students have essential skills like knowing how to hold a pencil or recite the alphabet by the time the reach elementary school.

“She’s basically a part of the team,” he said.

Digging deeper into the data reveals another trend found in many Pendleton data sets — an achievement gap between American Indian students and the rest of their cohort. While American Indian students may generally score higher in kindergarten assessment than their counterparts statewide, Yoshioka said he did notice the gap.

Yoshioka said there are no American Indian students in the district’s preschool, with many spending their time at the Cay-Um-Wa Head Start on the Umatilla Indian Reservation instead.

Yoshioka said he’s hopeful that the Blue Mountain Early Learning Hub, an InterMountain Education Service District initiative that coordinates early learning services and training across the region, will help the rest of the Pendleton area’s preschool students achieve better results.

In Umatilla, superintendent Heidi Sipe said the district’s numbers show their students are behind the state average, even though they have preschool programs and Early Head Start in place.

“The correlation data for third grade shows that where kids come in matters a lot,” Sipe said.

She added that while the state requires school districts to collect the data, Umatilla looks at the results alongside other assessments like DIBELS, or Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills.

“We’re always focused on student growth,” she said. “Not where a kid is, but their trajectory.”

Sipe said the district is also working on developing an early learning information assessment system, which they hope will target students needing extra help early on.

Beyond the classroom

Umatilla-Morrow County Early Head Start Director Julie Sanders said the data highlights the importance of preparing children for school well before they get there.

“What we see in data is that when they enter kindergarten is really indicative of what progress they’ll make in third grade and beyond,” Sanders said. “I’d say even before kindergarten — preschool ability is greatly indicative of how they’ll do in school, and if they’ll graduate. Which is why we work so hard to close that gap for low-income students,” she said.

Students are eligible for Head Start based on income, and have to be below a certain level to qualify. But Head Start has partnered with several local school districts, including Hermiston, Morrow County and Milton-Freewater to host preschool programs. There are also Early Head Start programs in several cities.

Sanders said parents can also do several things at home to help their children, including simply getting their kids to school, being engaged in their children’s education and keeping books around the house.

Jennifer Cox, the assessment coordinator for the Hermiston School District, said the data collected does not display the impact of full-day kindergarten, because the scores are collected within the first few weeks of school.

She said because the teachers administer the tests to their own students, they are able to immediately access the data and use it to inform their teaching.

“They can use it right away to help set up skill groups, create lessons for students,” she said. “If there are students that already know letters, they can go on to working on letter sounds.”

Cox said the assessment has been helpful for tracking statewide trends, but said there were no obvious trends to report from recent data.

Some local libraries offer reading programs for young children, which can help with early literacy.

“In our weekly children’s programs we always strive to work in the early literacy skills and make an effort to explain to parents why we’re doing the things we do,” said Mema Martinez, a Hermiston Public Library employee.

Martinez said library employees will focus on one letter of the alphabet for two weeks of storytime, singing songs and reading books that focus on that letter, as well as having children practice writing the letter.

The library also has a program called Ready2Learn, where children from birth to age five can be signed up to receive a free card where they can access books, movies, and activities at the library.

Martinez said in comparing Hermiston Ready2Learn participants’ kindergarten scores with children who didn’t have cards, kids who had regularly been using their cards and coming to the library had scores almost double those who did not have R2L cards. Hermiston R2L participants scored an average of 19.8 with uppercase letter recognition, compared to a district average of 10.7. R2L participants averaged 16.9 with lowercase letter recognition and 12.7 with letter sounds, compared to 8.9 and 6.5 district-wide.

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