New report on transitional kindergarten gives the grade high scores

FILE PHOTO: Students wait for a graduation ceremony from a year of classes at Stanley Mosk Elementary School. Some of the students in the class are part of a transitional kindergarten program.
FILE PHOTO: Students wait for a graduation ceremony from a year of classes at Stanley Mosk Elementary School. Some of the students in the class are part of a transitional kindergarten program.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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A new report out Wednesday gives high marks to the state's newest primary grade. 

The multi-year study from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) finds that students enrolled in transitional kindergarten had an advantage in literacy and math skills when they reach kindergarten.

Researchers looked at the skills of 6,000 kindergarteners across 20 school districts — some who had  attended TK and some who did not. Students who had TK were better at identifying letters and words and had a better grasp on addition and subtraction – even compared with kids who'd been enrolled in other types of preschool programs.

Courtesy of American Institutes for Research

In the years they examined, the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years, researchers were surprised to learn that students excelled no matter how classes were structured – whether half-day, full-day, or combined with kindergarten classes.

"We didn't find that the impact of TK varied based on the nature of those interactions," said Heather Quick, a lead researcher on the study. "This suggests that it’s the program’s unique features – like its universality [meaning, its availability to students from all socio-economic levels] and also its strong teacher qualifications – that may be partly behind the program's effectiveness."

This study is the final in a series of reports examining the effectiveness of the early years of the program in California. 

The grade was established in the state in 2010 after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the Kindergarten Readiness Act, which moved up the birthday cutoff for five-year-olds entering kindergarten from December to September.  TK serves students with birthdays between September 2nd and December 2nd, offering them a year of instruction to launch their school career.

While the AIR report found that the grade was effective for all, it had a particularly strong impact on the literacy and math skills of English learners and low-income students.

"They're being exposed to more language acquisition, so we’re starting to see a major difference," said Lilia Fuentes, director of elementary education at Pomona Unified School District.

That district has a wide array of preschool offerings and in the past four years has grown its TK program from one class to 12, now serving 300 students.

Fuentes says kindergarten teachers are sharing that TK kids are coming in more prepared to learn. She believes investing in kids early will reduce time and costs of learning intervention in the future. 

"One of the things we see is just when they start off holding a pencil – just as simple as that – or just being able to stay in the classroom or just being ready emotionally at the beginning of kindergarten."

According to the AIR report, overall the students who attended TK did not show noticeable differences in social-emotional skills, like cooperation and self-control. Based on those findings, Quick suggests that cultivating those skills could become a greater focus of the programs in the future. 

Courtesy of American Institutes of Research

More research needs to be done in the area to know how students progress as they move through higher grades. The report evaluates student skill in the fall and spring of their kindergarten year.

Non-TK students did catch up to their peers towards the end of the school year. Quick says that suggests that TK graduates could benefit from kindergarten experiences more targeted to their level of skill.

"Given that they enter kindergarten at a higher level than their peers," said Quick, "they may need a different set of supports to help them continue to grow and learn."