Uncovering Gaps in School Readiness

Nationally, students of color and children who are poor enter kindergarten substantially behind their peers. In Wisconsin, gaps in graduation rates between black and white students and in math and reading scores of black and white fourth graders are the largest in the country. Recent research has shown that these achievement gaps in the graduation rates and test scores of high school and elementary students exist even before children begin kindergarten.

In a new study from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), researchers, led by CDE affiliate Eric Grodsky (sociology), provide a first look at inequalities in kindergarten readiness in Wisconsin. Using student population data from the roughly 59,000 kindergartners who enrolled in Wisconsin public schools each year over course of the academic years 2013–15, the study describes differences in school readiness as reflected by literacy skills at school entry.

Grodsky and the research team—graduate students Yiyue Huangfu (sociology), H. Rose Miesner (educational policy studies), and Chiara Packard (sociology)—analyzed data on basic literacy skills to determine school readiness. Since Wisconsin does not require a comprehensive kindergarten assessment of children’s skills on entering school, the researchers used data focused on five basic literacy skills: phonological awareness, alphabet recognition, concept of word, knowledge of letter sounds, and spelling.

Analysis of the public school data was made possible through funding provided by a $5.2 million grant from the U.S Department of Education jointly awarded to WCER and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The longitudinal data on literacy skills indicated that Wisconsin’s kindergartners are not equally prepared to learn on entering school.

The report also found that in Wisconsin:

  • Almost 66 percent of African American children and 70 percent of Latino children enter kindergarten less prepared than the typical white child.
  • Nearly 75 percent of poor children enter kindergarten behind the typical, more economically advantaged child.
  • Differences in the economic resources of families of white children and children of color account for much, but not all of the racial/ethnic differences in school readiness. If children of color were as financially well off as white children, the researchers would expect gaps in early literacy skills to shrink by 40–60 percent.
  • Variation in literacy skills among kindergartners attending the same school is much greater than the variation across schools or districts.

Grodsky, Huangfu, Miesner, and Packard will share their findings with the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council on December 13.