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Measuring School Readiness

Non-academic factors, such as health, emerge as critical in a new study of Chemung County, N.Y., led by TC's Madhabi Chatterji
Since the famous Coleman report of the 1960s, one truth has been held self-evident about the achievement gap separating poorer, typically minority students in the United States from their wealthier, mostly white counterparts: that children’s family background, physical and psychological health, and other non-academic factors weigh as heavily on their chances for academic success as the quality of their schooling. More recently, that idea has been reinforced by research suggesting that the achievement gap gets locked in during the first three to five years of children’s lives, a critical period for developing language and mathematical abilities, social skills and much more.
Now research centering on a unique social experiment undertaken by an entire county in upstate New York offers some of the strongest evidence to date that both hypotheses are true—and more specifically that the “school readiness” of young children upon entering kindergarten can be dramatically improved by providing them with stronger non-academic social supports along with informal education at home.
The research focuses on the Chemung County School Readiness Project, a grass-roots, community-wide collaboration that’s providing an array of child and family services to all residents in the region through a multi-agency partnership. The project’s goal is to increase school readiness levels and overall well-being in children during the first five years of their lives. The study’s authors are Madhabi Chatterji, Associate Professor of Measurement-Evaluation at TC and Director of the college’s Assessment and Evaluation Research Initiative (AERI), and her graduate assistant, Radhika Iyengar.
It will take another 10 years—the period during which the current kindergartners in Chemung County will complete elementary, middle and high school—and several more studies for the Project’s ultimate impact to be known. The current research by Chatterji and her team, which profiled the school readiness of 2007–08 entering kindergartners, is a baseline study designed to provide points of comparison for a long-term evaluation of the Project’s effectiveness.
Nevertheless, a number of key findings emerged from the study, which includes data on 300 of the county’s 934 kindergarten-enrolled children in 2007–08.
The children who were more “school ready,” the researchers determined, tended to have mothers who were at least college-educated; had been exposed to more informal educational experiences in the home; had received continuous and consistent parent care; were female; and had received pre-schooling at age three.
The children found to be less “school ready” tended to have more sleeping abnormalities; had been exposed to more traumatic events (high levels of family mobility, exposure to assault or incarceration within the family); had a medical history of ill-health or had received professional services for diagnosed special needs; and had mothers who smoked during pregnancy.
“The notion of ‘comprehensive education’”—a term that describes the kind of wrap-around services being provided to Chemung County residents—“has been in the early childhood literature for some time, enacted in the past through legislation such as the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971,” says Chatterji. “Recent thinking is that children who are more school-ready will tend to come from families that can provide more all-round opportunities and supports, such as informal education at home and protection from adversities during childhood.
“Our study validates these ideas using a comprehensive measure of school readiness in kindergarten as the outcome. The data from Chemung County support the project’s theory that providing these community services will promote school readiness in a broad sense. The project staff could use the results to build awareness among parents about the need for comprehensive education and encourage them to make use of county services if they haven’t already done so.”
A key feature of the study by Chatterji and Iyengar is the development of the first comprehensive measure of school readiness (CSR). Typically, school readiness has been defined mainly in terms of children’s literacy and facility with numbers and number concepts. However, the study measured readiness using both cognitive and non-cognitive factors, including children’s health, and social and emotional adjustment (such as their capacity to pay attention and follow rules in school). The study’s CSR is a composite indicator derived from eight such measurements.
To gather data for the study, Chatterji and Iyengar surveyed parents regarding the health history of their children, asking about the kinds of services they used from the county to support development. Each child also was observed by kindergarten teachers during the first semester of the school year. A vast majority of the children (87 percent) were five years old during the period the study was conducted.
Chatterji and two other TC students, Jennifer Mata and A. Brooks Bowden, have also produced a case study looking at how the Chemung County School Readiness Project came together.
“Other, similar efforts have often been initiated by the federal or state governments, but the Chemung project is purely grassroots,” Chatterji says. “It’s unusual for people in a community to band together on their own and attempt something so long-term and far-reaching, so we wanted to see what’s needed to make that happen. What roles did people take on? Who were the visionaries and catalysts? What was the role of local universities and foundations?”
The two studies are the first released by AERI, which was created in 2006 with an expressed goal of evaluating comprehensive initiatives that promote educational equity. The co-director of AERI is Edmund W. Gordon, Richard March Hoe Professor Emeritus at Teachers College. Further information can be found at www/tc/edu/aeri.

Published Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009