By Danielle J. Brown, Florida Phoenix
For many Florida families with young children, a child’s education starts much sooner than kindergarten. A new class of kindergarteners is expected to start school with some sense of the fundamentals, such as language, literacy and math.
But for the 2020-21 school year, at least 43 percent of kindergarteners in classes now are not actually ready for kindergarten, according to state data.
That’s 57,534 Florida students who went to kindergarten in the 2020-21 academic year and took what’s known as the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener about a month into the school year.
The kids were deemed “not ready” for the grade they were in — kindergarten.
In fact, kindergarten readiness in Florida has been a concern for quite some time, with educators, lawmakers, and Florida businesses trying to get more kids ready for the kindergarten experience.
The Children’s Movement of Florida is a non-profit organization with a stated goal: Get Florida students to 100% kindergarten readiness by the year 2030.
“Investing in kindergarten readiness is a down payment for our K-12 system and for the health and resilience of our communities. Twenty years on, we’ll get higher earners, more innovative employees and more thoughtful citizens,” wrote Madeleine K. Thakur, chief of staff for the Children’s Movement, who wrote in an op-ed for the Miami Herald about the importance of kindergarten in a student’s academic and future career.
Florida’s kindergarten readiness rate was around 53 percent from 2017 to 2019. This year, the readiness rate appears to have increased to 57 percent.
Dr. Jerry Parrish is the chief economist with the Florida Chamber Foundation, a branch of the Florida Chamber of Commerce which is also committed to improving kindergarten readiness scores by 2030.
He says that the increase of kindergarten readiness is not necessarily an indicator of improvement, because COVID-19 may have played a part in the higher success rate.
“During COVID, you have to be a little careful with the numbers,” Parrish said in a conversation with the Phoenix. “A lot fewer kids took these tests in 2020.”
It’s true. According to state data, there were 57,173 fewer kindergarteners who took the 2020 kindergarten readiness screener than in 2019.
The Phoenix previously reported that a portion of students who are unaccounted for in the 2020-21 school year were kids who would have entered kindergarten at the beginning of the academic year.
A likely explanation for the drop in kindergarten enrollment might be because some families opted to hold their student back from starting kindergarten this year until the pandemic wanes.
Regardless of the COVID caveat, that still means 43 percent of kindergarteners were not ready to start kindergarten this year.
One lawmaker thinks the issues come from Florida’s system for early education and Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten programs.
Rep. Erin Grall, a Republican who represents Indian River and part of St. Lucie counties, is a sponsor of HB 419 — a lengthy bill designed to restructure Florida’s early learning education system.
In Florida, students do not have to start school until they are age 6, but many parents opt to start their children earlier in voluntary Pre-K programs.
Among other measures, the bill would phase in new assessments that are taken throughout a student’s time in voluntary Pre-K, to track students toward kindergarten readiness.
Grall is extremely concerned about the number of students who are not ready for kindergarten.
“I want you to think about the fact that about 175,000 children go through VPK each year,” she told a House early learning subcommittee last week while presenting HB 419. “I’ve been here for four years – that’s about 700,000 children. If you just take the 50% success rate, that means that 350,000 children have gone through our programs in the last four years and are not ready for kindergarten. That’s a failure. That’s a failure on us.”
Currently, the state tracks “kindergarten readiness” through the Florida Kindergarten Readiness Screener. If a student scores 500 or higher, they are considered “ready for kindergarten” and are expected to have the appropriate skills to help them succeed in their academic career.
But Grall thinks there’s a problem: The screener used to determine if a student is ready for kindergarten is given to a student within the first 30 school days of kindergarten.
“Think about it: if you have a kindergartener and you’re a couple months into kindergarten,” she said at the subcommittee meeting. “They take a screener. The state looks at you and goes: ‘by the way, your child’s not ready for kindergarten.’ Well, thanks so much. We’re here now – what are we supposed to do?”
Grall’s legislation would use progress monitoring assessments throughout a student’s time in Voluntary Pre-K, so that a struggling student could be sooner identified for help.
The progress monitoring could also bring more accountability to VPK programs that are not properly preparing students for kindergarten.
“If you knew before the end of the program…if you knew as a parent that your child was not ready for kindergarten, you would have the opportunity to seek other interventions,” she said. “That’s what this bill seeks to do – it seeks to give information to parents, in real time, and to providers in real time.”