Local teachers give state kindergarten initiative gets so-so reviews

Those among first to adopt such tests cite inconvenience

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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A state program that wants to make sure no kindergartner is left behind is getting mixed reactions from the Clark County teachers who are among its early adopters.

The program, called the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills -- or WaKIDS, played a crucial part in the state’s landing a $60 million federal grant two years ago. The state Legislature currently is debating a bill that would speed up the next part of the program’s gradual roll-out.

The bill to advance WaKIDS into its next phase stands a good chance of becoming law. It won passage in the House, 84-11, and moved out of the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee this week. A nonprofit that supports the program lists Gov. Chris Gregoire, several key legislators and the chiefs of the state’s largest corporations on its board of directors.

WaKIDS is a threefold initiative. It aligns the curriculum for day care and kindergarten; it seeks to strengthen the connection between parents and kindergarten teachers; and it expands testing in kindergarten -- not just of academic skills, but of each kid’s social, emotional and physical development.

The program was a big reason why Washington won the federal Race to the Top grant two years ago, said Amy Blondin, government relations manager with the state Department of Early Learning. Not many states have integrated what’s taught at day care and early-learning centers with the expectations placed upon kids when they arrive in kindergarten, she said.

Although WaKIDS was important to the grant application’s success, it doesn’t eat up much of the resulting money. A little more than $2 million out of the $60 million grant is dedicated to bringing the program to every kindergartner in the state by the 2014-15 school year, Blondin said. The rest goes to a new system to rate day cares and to professional training for pre-K teachers and providers.

In addition, the state has $900,000 in the general fund for WaKIDS and the Gates Foundation chipped in to implement the program.

WaKIDS was piloted in several schools around the state last year. This year, 165 elementary schools statewide including Orchards Elementary in the Evergreen school district participate voluntarily. Next year, all schools who run all-day kindergarten under a state grant must sign up for WaKIDS.

Of the program’s three objectives, the first two -- connecting parents and teachers, and pre-schools and kindergartens -- have met little resistance.

Some misunderstandings persist. At a recent Senate committee hearing, a parent said she was against having to invite teachers into her home for the mandatory visit before the beginning of the school year. In reality, while the program demands teachers meet with parents individually at the very onset of the school year, rather than in large groups during fall conferences, those meetings can take place anywhere that’s convenient for parents and teacher, including at school.

Kindergarten teachers at Orchards largely welcomed the one-on-one meetings.

“It’s really neat to find out things about the kids,” said teacher Candy Seifert.

Even little details -- such as knowing that a student loves Transformers toys -- can help break the ice in the first few weeks of school, she said. Those intimate details are unlikely to come up at a big parent-teacher conference. Teachers from last year’s pilot program gave similarly positive responses in a survey.

And nobody -- at Orchards or in the survey -- seemed to oppose having day cares or other preschools on the same page as the K-12 system when it comes to learning objectives.

But the third objective -- testing the youngest students and entering their results in a statewide database -- is meeting some resistance from teachers and principals.

Their main concern is that the testing and data entry takes a lot of time, which they say would be spent more efficiently teaching kids.

“More than half of our kids start school without any academic or social skills,” said Vinh Nguyen, Orchard’s principal.

“We’re still teaching them to walk in a line,” Seifert said.

But since signing up for WaKIDS last summer they’re expected to assess the kids in 19 different categories while students are still learning the basics. The assessments aren’t like the standardized state tests taken by older children.

The kindergarten teachers under WaKIDS assess if a student engages in conversation and uses social rules of language, for example. They rate if students manage their emotions properly in the class setting. And they record a child’s level of motor function -- if he can walk up stairs without holding an adult’s hand, for example.

That is in addition to academic assessments, such as if students can write their names or count to 20.

Each of the 19 categories is graded on a scale from 0-9, creating a pretty complex matrix for each child.

‘Inconvenient’

In a last year’s pilot survey, three-fourths of teachers rated both the assessments and the data-entry as “extremely inconvenient.”

But it’s important to assess the whole child in this way, because child development is interdependent with learning, said Blondin, from the early-learning department.

Teachers say they do these kinds of assessment anyway on a daily basis. They just make these observations organically and don’t enter them into little boxes in a cumbersome computer system.

The teachers were told the observations wouldn’t take extra time out of the day. But that’s not how it’s working in practice so far. For most of the assessments, the Orchard teachers have to pull students aside one at a time, they say.

And that takes time away from interacting with the whole class, as does entering mounds of data.

In total, their principal estimates about five days are lost to testing and entering results. Her kids in particular can ill afford that loss, Nguyen said. About three-quarters of students at Orchards qualify for free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty.

“This is a low-income area,” Nguyen said. “They need to get out of poverty, and this is the only chance they have. Every second counts.”

The teachers said the amount of information they need to enter is excessive and overwhelming. They also said it’s not that helpful.

But the assessment shouldn’t have to be a lot of extra work, state officials said.

“The observation is intended to be integrated with classroom activities,” said Robin Munson, assistant state superintendent. “I don’t know if it can be 100 percent integrated, but in future training, we will show examples of teachers who integrated it.”

And that may just be part of the problem -- the training for this first year of WaKIDS was lacking, teachers said.

Teachers said the software used to enter and store the data was not user friendly.

“We had two days of training on how to use the tool,” said teacher Jesse Irvine Sramek. “But the technology aspect (of the training) could get better.”

Yet that was the part the state thought it had adequately covered, perhaps at the expense of training for the day-to-day use of the program in the classroom.

“Our training was just about the instrument and maybe not enough about WaKIDS in general,” Munson said.

The state is hearing the teachers’ criticisms, she said. Some of them already have been addressed. Training will be expanded for next year and start in the spring instead of right before the beginning of the school year.

The state also is working with the software vendor to make the system more usable for teachers.

“Teachers will be pleasantly surprised next year,” said Blondin, from the early-learning department.

The program introduced several components that are “very new and very different,” she said. “Change is hard.”

The bill advancing WaKIDS was amended last week to add teachers and principals into a work group that’s ironing out the kinks in the new system, Blondin said.

But while there are growing pains, it’s important to have a statewide, uniform system to know how kids are doing in school, she said. Until this year, no such data existed until students were in third grade.

The budget proposed by House Democrats last week included increased funding for WaKIDS, which would in part go toward training.

Orchards’ principal will likely welcome that news. As a low-income school, it receives extra money to run all-day kindergarten, which means next year WaKIDS would have been mandatory anyway. Knowing that, the school signed up a year early to get started. But training and support its principal said was inadequate makes the staff wish they had waited.

“I’m sorry that we suffered a year early,” Nguyen said.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.