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New Study Underscores Impact of Poverty and English Language Development on Literacy among Young Kindergarten Students

March 8, 2001
A study of more than 8,200 kindergarten students this year in the Montgomery County Public Schools confirms the widely held view that children who are young, impoverished, and learning English as a second language have significantly weaker literacy skills upon entering kindergarten than students who do not share these characteristics.

The study, released today [Thursday, March 8] and conducted by the Office of Shared Accountability, was based on kindergarten teacher implementation of the Early Childhood Assessment Program. The study looked at children's readiness for reading when they entered kindergarten and focused on two key basic skills what children know about alphabet letters and what children know about how to recognize printed text and words in books.

The study found that a significant percentage of students participating in the Free and Reduced-Price Meals System (FARMS) and/or the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program when entering kindergarten could not recognize or identify upper- and lower-case letters of the alphabet or understand concepts about reading books.

For example, the study found the following:

* One-third of the FARMS students knew only 11 alphabet letters or fewer.

* More than half of the FARMS and ESOL students knew 11 alphabet letters or fewer.

* The data worsened among students who entered kindergarten as early as 4 years old.

"The findings of this unprecedented study in Montgomery County underscore the importance of the county's new priority for early childhood intervention prior to kindergarten and the concurrent need for extensive academic remediation by the public school system once children arrive in kindergarten," said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools, in a report to the Board of Education.

"Clearly, the persistent problems associated with the achievement gap among students at each grade level throughout the school system begin at a much earlier age than previously documented," he said.

The findings, which represent a unique assessment of more than 90 percent of this year's entire kindergarten enrollment, also are consistent with state data released last week about the lack of readiness among children entering kindergarten statewide.

Together, the county and state studies add a greater understanding about the characteristics of the students most in need of both the school system's and county's efforts in pre-kindergarten preparation and support. The data provide an important indication of the combination of challenges facing a growing population of kindergarten students who are young, poor, and non-English speaking.

The study was undertaken this year in order to create baseline data to assess the readiness of children entering kindergarten and the effectiveness of the new kindergarten curriculum in both the full-day and half-day programs. Follow-up studies will be done this spring as well as in subsequent years.

The implementation of new staff development initiatives, volunteer programs, mentoring, tutoring, summer school programs, and other community-based and parent support programs will be aligned to address the findings of the study.

"The study has implications throughout the school system," said Dr. Weast. "Issues being raised about the readiness of high school students for the upcoming state assessments are, in part, relevant to the readiness of students entering kindergarten and the alignment of the entire curriculum from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade.

"We now have the opportunity to use a powerful set of data to demonstrate that the issues of poverty and language development, coupled with earlier enrollment of young children, present significant challenges for our entire county," Dr. Weast said. "The task ahead of us is to make the investments necessary to help prepare our youngest children for success from their very first days of school."

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