Students from wealthy areas do better on new kindergarten test

CLEVELAND - The state's new kindergarten readiness test backs up what teachers have long thought: A child's readiness for school is closely tied to the wealth of the community where the child lives.

Kindergartners starting school in affluent suburbs did much better than children from high-poverty urban and rural areas.

"It really shows what we've been trying to get people to see all along -- kids from lower socioeconomic conditions need more help, and it really takes more work to bring them to speed," said Debbie Tully, professional issues director for the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

This year's kindergartners were the first to take the annual exam. Administered either in the summer before classes begin or up to six weeks into the school year, the test assesses skills such as answering questions, sentence repetition, recognizing rhyming words, letter identification and identifying words with the same sound. Each child is tested individually, a process that takes 10 to 15 minutes.

The idea behind the test is to determine what the students know and identify strengths and weaknesses so that they can get the help they need, teachers say. Doing poorly on the test will not keep children out of kindergarten or stop them from moving on to first grade.

In general, the results reflect trends that continue later in school: girls do better than boys, white students score better than blacks and Latinos, and students in districts that excel do better than students in districts that struggle.

The results did contain one surprise. Children starting in charter schools, most of which are in high-poverty big cities, posted relatively high scores.

The schools are publicly funded but are governed by private groups, including some for-profit companies, and free of many regulations that traditional districts must follow. Charter schools are believed to accept children who are the most difficult to teach.

The kindergarten test is a result of the ongoing fight over school funding in Ohio and whether a system dependent on local property taxes creates wide disparities between low- and high-wealth districts.

State Sen. C.J. Prentiss of Cleveland wanted a commission to study how poverty influenced student performance and to determine how much money was needed for students to achieve the new state standards. While lawmakers would not go along, they did commit to the readiness exam.

"My hope was really to get a truer picture of what districts had to deal with when kids entered kindergarten not ready," said Prentiss, now the Senate minority leader. "I wanted to know what it meant in terms of allocation of resources. You hear some of my colleagues say that it's not about money, but bringing kids the resources they need does cost money."

Experts worry that the tests can label children even before they start school.

"Part of this is the fixation on testing as a cure for every imaginable education ill," said Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing in Cambridge, Mass. "Good teachers don't need to test like that to identify a kid who needs help."

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