Teacher works with student while student wears headphones and touches screen of a laptop

Minding the Gap: Assessing Early Elementary Students’ Development

Pilot assessments seek to fill an information gap and help educators better understand the growth of students’ mathematics and social-emotional skills from first through third grades.

Audrey Breen

Last spring, when the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP) and other assessments were deployed across kindergarten classrooms in every school division in Virginia, the assessments revealed that 44% of Virginia kindergarteners ended the school year lacking in at least one of four skill areas: literacy, mathematics, self-regulation, or social skills. Data also showed that preschool and kindergarten teachers continued to report concerns for their students’ mental health into year three of the pandemic.

These assessments provide the insights educators need to identify and offer the supports children require to develop critical skills, providing the foundation for later learning, including supporting students’ mental health and well-being.

After kindergarten, the next round of comprehensive, statewide standardized testing that includes multiple domains for Virginia students currently happens again in 3rd grade. According to Jessica Whittaker, research associate professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, that is too late.

“The skills children have in third grade are highly predictive of their future success,” said Whittaker, who directs the birth to eight initiatives at the UVA Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). “Ideally, we would continue to measure students’ math, self-regulation, and social skills through first and second grade, so we can offer the supports they need as soon as they need them. In many school divisions, this current gap results in a black box of information about students until the third-grade Standards of Learning growth assessments.”

Led by Amanda Williford, the Batten Bicentennial Professor of Early Childhood Education, and Whittaker, the team at CASTL that developed the original version of the VKRP is again partnering with the Virginia Department of Education to determine if creating a set of assessments in the early elementary years can help shine a light in that black box.

“We know learning is cumulative and students build formative literacy, numeracy and social-emotional skills in their early elementary years,” said Jenna Conway, Deputy Superintendent of Early Childhood at the Virginia Department of Education. “We are excited to partner with UVA to determine how we can better support Virginia educators and families to understand and promote all children’s individualized learning and development so that they can be successful in school and in life.” 

But before charging ahead, the team wants to first hear from educators across the state.

“Our first step is to gather information from teachers and education leaders about what divisions are already doing related to assessment of social skills, self-regulation, mental health, and mathematics, in grades one through three,” Whittaker said. “We want to know what they are doing, if they like it and what more information they may need.”

For Whittaker, it is especially important that this new effort is not duplicating what is already happening. Nor do they want to change systems that educators have in place that they like and are finding helpful. As part of this effort, the team will launch a survey to teachers and division leaders this winter to gather much of that insight.

While they hope to learn important information, Whittaker admits that as they continue their current work with educators across the state, they are hearing that assessments—particularly for mathematics and social-emotional learning in grades one and two—are lacking. Educators are hungry for something that can help them understand students’ ongoing growth and development.

As they engage with school divisions across the state in this first phase of the project, the team is bringing together a working group to breathe life into the mathematics portion of a VKRP 1-3 assessment. National research experts and division-level math specialists are coming together to help the team identify what the best mathematics assessment would look like for first, second, and third grade classrooms.

This group is engaging questions like, what specific areas of math should be assessed? Should the tool be assessing multiple sub-domains like numeracy, computation, and geometry, or be more narrowly focused? They are also discussing how the assessment should happen. Should it be computer-based or conducted one-on-one with a teacher? Should the student use manipulatives and are virtual manipulatives an appropriate option?

“The math group is working through those questions and developing a set of items that we will pilot in classrooms this spring in grades one through three,” Whittaker said.

Once the information gathering is complete and the team begins piloting the mathematics assessments, they will turn their attention to the social-emotional assessments with goal of piloting those into classrooms during the spring of 2024.

To develop the social-emotional elements of the assessment, the team is working with their partners from the Virginia Department of Education and a group of experts to look at those items to measure children's social skill, self-regulation, and mental health and think about, what do school divisions and teachers want to know about children's social emotional learning in grades one through three.

“We will be simultaneously thinking about what data are already being collected, to avoid duplication,” Whittaker said.

With pilot data in-hand about both the mathematics and social-emotional learning assessments, the team hopes to have a sense of the shape of a series of assessments in first through third grade that would measure students’ growth in pre-k through third grade and identify where students need additional support. They will report their findings from the pilot to the Virginia Department of Education in late 2024.

Virginia Policy Partnership Collaborative

This work is part of the ongoing efforts aimed at connecting UVA researchers and students with education policymakers to address pressing education problems in the Commonwealth through careful research.

News Information

Research Center or Department

  • Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning
  • Virginia Education Science Training (VEST) Fellowship Program