Two kindergartners are sitting at a table in their school, building a castle with colored blocks. One suggests they take turns picking which block to add next. Their teacher notices the interaction, snaps a photo and jots down some notes.
The teacher is collecting data for an assessment being piloted statewide in 64 school districts, including those in Carpentersville, Elgin, Mount Prospect, Palatine, Wheeling and Woodstock. The castle-building helps her measure how well the students interact with peers. She'll also note the child's suggestion for a new rule to guide their play -- it relates to a measure about "responsible conduct."
Who's on board?Ten suburban school districts are piloting a new way to assess kindergartners' readiness for first grade.
• Carpentersville-based Community Unit District 300
• Elgin Area School District U-46
• Marengo-Union Elementary District 165
• Mount Prospect Elementary District 57
• Niles Elementary District 71
• Oak Park Elementary District 97
• Palatine Elementary District 15
• Wheeling Township Elementary District 21
• Winfield Elementary District 34
• Woodstock Unit District 200
The assessment is meant to measure the school readiness of kindergartners through observations of everyday activities. It's not a sit-down test, and it's as much about kids' behavioral development as academics.
"It's going to put kindergarten back where it should be," said Julie Kallenbach, director of early learner initiatives at Elgin Area School District U-46. "It's going to make us pay attention to play."
Kallenbach served on the advisory committee that recommended the assessment tool kindergarten teachers are using this year. It was first developed in California more than 10 years ago, but the latest version, specifically for kindergarten readiness, was released just last year.
The assessment is being touted as a vital new tool for gauging student development and tracking growth. But the initial reaction by many teachers and administrators involved in the pilot is less than enthusiastic because of its breadth and the amount of time it takes to complete.
The Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, or KIDS, will be used to monitor about 5,000 students this year with the goal of expanding it to the state's entire kindergarten population by the 2015-16 school year.
KIDS is not a one-on-one assessment of their abilities. It is a daily, ongoing collection of evidence that requires teachers to document their students' growth throughout the year. Assessment categories cover language and literacy, social development, self-regulation and math.
The assessment is meant to be completed three times per year, though most schools involved with the pilot will fit in only one or two reporting periods, based on the timing of their original training.
Reyna Hernández, assistant superintendent for early childhood at the state board of education, is excited about the new assessment for its data possibilities. Teachers will be able to use the results -- and even the experience during the collection process -- to tailor their teaching strategies to meet the needs of each student. Districts will be able to cater professional development to what the data identifies as gaps in student achievement. And the state will be able to add KIDS data to school report cards and adjust grants and early childhood programming accordingly.
But Hernández acknowledges the picture is not all rosy.
"It's new. It's very big. It can be a little bit overwhelming for people learning how to use an observational assessment for the first time," Hernández said. "But once we get over the bump, it'll really be something we'll wonder what we did before we had it."
Many educators in the suburbs are still in the overwhelmed stage when it comes to KIDS implementation -- especially because so many schools offer half-day kindergarten with just 2.5 hours of instruction time.
Mary Zarr, assistant superintendent for curriculum at Palatine Elementary District 15, said three teachers and two administrators were trained in the KIDS assessment this fall. Zarr expects a significant impact on teacher workload from the added duties of collecting evidence and logging the data for each student.
When one teacher has dozens of students per class and two classes per day, the work adds up.
And in some schools, the benefits of that effort aren't so obvious. Zarr said the strong focus of the KIDS assessment on social and emotional measures is less appropriate for students who have already been in preschool environments for several years -- like many who show up for kindergarten in District 15. Those students have already proven success working and playing with their age mates so the data collected on them is less useful, Zarr said.
It's those areas more than math and literacy that are creating the largest learning curve for teachers who aren't used to evaluating them.
In Mount Prospect Elementary District 57, two teachers trained on the assessment will gather data on students in one of their half-day classes. Susan Woodrow, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said teachers are already quite comfortable collecting information about their students' progress in math and literacy. The social and emotional areas, though, are unfamiliar.
And with a 2.5-hour instructional day, there aren't many opportunities to gather information in those realms.
"At those opportunities when children are working independently or at a center where you might be able to see some of the social/emotional domains, our teachers don't have the luxury of going around and taking anecdotal notes," Woodrow said.
District 57 teachers do not have plans to change their instruction to incorporate new activities that allow them to measure the extra areas, according to Woodrow. But that's exactly what U-46's Kallenbach is glad some teachers will have to do.
"KIDS gives teachers the support to look at all areas of development on their 5- and 6-year-old students, not just literacy and math," Kallenbach said. "When they have to assess areas like "conflict negotiation" and "engagement and persistence" and "problem solving," they will be designing learning activities that create situations for students to learn and practice those skills."
Kallenbach said kindergarten classrooms have been moving away from "play" scenarios in recent years, a trend the new assessment will help reverse. That will give kids more practice in conversations, negotiations and self-regulation, Kallenbach said, skills that are important beyond school and throughout a student's life.
Tricia Bogott is the principal of Verda Dierzen Early Learning Center in Woodstock Community Unit District 200. She heard about the pilot program at an administrators meeting and brought the idea back to the district before volunteering for the first year.
Bogott said the three teachers who went through the training were all pre-K teachers before they moved into kindergarten -- a helpful trait for many of those participating in the pilot. Preschools in Illinois must use an authentic assessment tool to qualify for state grants. Those assessments require teachers to look at child development through daily observations and growth over time, just like the KIDS assessment.
"It's really a very comprehensive tool that will benefit our kindergarten teachers," Bogott said. "It looks at the whole child rather than a snapshot at one time and one specific skill."
Play: Assessment focuses on areas like 'problem solving,' 'conflict negotiation'