The headlines were alarming a study showing that three-quarters of Illinois students aren't ready for kindergarten when they get there.

The results of the Illinois State Board of Education's Kindergarten Individual Development Survey (KIDS) were released June 25. This was the second year for the study that uses three primary measurements of kindergarten readiness: social and emotional development; language and literacy development; and math. The assessment is done by teachers 40 days into kindergarten.

The latest survey was done last fall, and it showed that 40 days into the school year, 74% of nearly 116,000 students measured weren't fully prepared for kindergarten. Students in the Sauk Valley didn't fare much better in the study. A total of 1,318 kindergartners were rated and only three school districts - Ashton-Franklin Center, Chadwick-Milledgeville and Erie - had more than half of their students considered ready in the three major developmental areas.

Many educators aren't sold on the 40-day survey as an accurate indicator of district performance. Not all kids go to preschool, and because this is a measurement of what students knew coming in, it's unfair to have this survey reflect poorly on the school districts.

The numbers do, however, give the districts some idea of how wide of a developmental gap must be bridged when a new group enters kindergarten. This type of study doesn't strive for perfection in its measurements, but it does succeed in identifying problems with the way we approach early childhood education, both locally and at the state level.

As with most education problems, the conversation first turns to funding. Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker's first budget includes a 10% increase for the Early Childhood Block Grant program, but it isn't nearly enough - only 30% of the state's students go to state-funded preschools. The program is now funded at $543.7 million. Illinois spends about $15,337 per student in K-12, but less than $3,500 on each child younger than 6.

The investment can't stop with the dollars that go directly to the schools - more money must go to support services for children and their families. Income disparities impact access to early childhood education programs, and kids on free and reduced lunch programs fared much worse in the study.

Access is already limited in many rural districts just because of their size. For example, Paw Paw doesn't have a pre-K school program and only has two in-home day care providers. None of Paw Paw's students came into kindergarten ready in all three of the primary categories measured in the latest KIDS survey.

The Chadwick-Milledgeville district, on the other hand, landed in the top 4% of the survey statewide. The district had 75% of its incoming kindergarten students adequately prepared in all three primary areas. That district has a pre-K class, two in-home day care providers in Milledgeville, and a park district-run Tot Time preschool program that meets 2 or 3 days a week.

While it's easy to talk about what the KIDS survey doesn't do, it would be wise to focus on what it does accomplish. It turns a spotlight on what is happening with our children in the all-important formative years of their social and educational development. The numbers in the survey don't tell us everything we need to know about early childhood education with pinpoint accuracy. What they do tell us is that we need to do much better and we need to start immediately.

Sauk Valley Media

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