Kindergarten Assessments Begin to Shape Instruction

Kindergarten entry assessments, which some states call “kindergarten readiness assessments” or “kindergarten entry inventories,” are intended to guide a teacher’s instructional practice. They may include direct assessment of children’s skills, teacher observations, or both. They’re intended to give teachers a well-rounded picture of the whole child, including his or her academic, social, and physical development.

While these assessments are becoming more widespread—boosted by federal support during the Obama administration—they’re offering mixed results for teachers and for school districts.

Supporters say they’re useful in supporting all elements of a child’s development during their important early school days.

Others have criticized the assessments as an additional burden that doesn’t let teachers know what they should do with all the data they’re expected to collect. And the assessments also raise concerns for some that they’ll be used for high-stakes purposes, like evaluating teachers or sorting children into educational tracks.

In Virginia, about half of the state’s school divisions are piloting a program called the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program. The state already requires incoming kindergartners to be measured on preliteracy skills. The kindergarten-readiness program adds evaluations of children’s math, social, and self-regulation skills.

It also provides tools for teachers if children show that they are lagging in those areas, said Amanda Williford, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who developed the measure and is working with districts in implementing it.

“Self-regulation and social skills are just as important, and it’s the same kind of skill as reading and math,” Williford said. “It’s learned in school, just like reading and math are. If a kid was struggling to read, we would never say they don’t belong in our classroom.”

Melita Ring, a kindergarten teacher at Amelon Elementary in Madison Heights, Va., said she likes having the one-on-one time with her students, and having resources to help students right at her fingertips.

“They’re giving you that opportunity to not only teach the children who are struggling, but to learn other ways of doing so,” Ring said.

Read more of the article from Education Week here.

The Foundations of Reading: Talking is Teaching

I was recently on an airplane watching a Dad traveling with his baby daughter, who was probably just about a year old. The plane we were on was having mechanical difficulty that caused it to remain on the tarmac for nearly an hour before take-off, no short amount of time for such a young child. Although this Dad certainly had his hands full, he did a great job of keeping his daughter entertained. And though there were a book and a few toys on hand, at the center of the entertainment was a conversation. When Daddy was face to face with baby – singing a song or reading a book or just commenting on what a pretty girl he had, all was well. When Daddy stopped talking, baby’s attention began to drift. The conversation was the engagement.

Over the hour that we waited on the tarmac, I took the opportunity to do a bit of reading myself and stumbled upon a blog, A Little More Conversation: Language and Communication Skills That Make All of the Difference for Kindergarten ( The author, Devin Walsh, is a kindergarten teacher in Mississippi and she opined on the importance of conversing with children to develop the language skills that serve as the foundations for literacy as kids enter school. The truth of Ms. Walsh’s thinking was being aptly demonstrated in the row immediately in front of me.

The importance of regular conversations in developing language is abundantly clear in the research. Kids who are regularly engaged in meaningful conversations have larger vocabularies, as well as better social skills. It’s language that provides the links that connect us. For those who lack that early exposure, the consequences are deep and lasting and are inextricably tied to the ability to learn to read.

As I continued on my journey, my next flight was also populated with a fair number of children. A Mom with 2 young boys, probably about 2 and 3 years old, next came to my attention. They boarded the plane fairly late, apparently as the result of a connecting flight that had been delayed. The exasperation on the part of Mom was palpable and as the rambunctious little boys began debating who would get the window seat, out came the electronics. Mom’s phone and her iPad came out of her purse and the boys quickly settled in to their games. I could see the games that involved colorful letters and shapes jumping off the screens at the kids. They were certainly happily engaged, being exposed to educational content, and pretty much speechless for the duration of the hour-long flight.

There are many ways that we can teach our kids and technology is certainly a valuable tool. That said, I believe Devin Walsh got it right when she pointed to the need for “a little more conversation.” As parents, we all need a break some times and technology can fill a void but it cannot replace a conversation with the most important person in your life. So, the next time you have some time with your children, please sing them a song, or read them a book or tell them how lucky you are to have them. Not only will you be better connected for it, they’ll be better readers.

Judy Jankowski, Ed. D.

Nurse-Family Partnership: Parental education and early health result in better child outcomes.

Professor Heckman’s latest research, An Analysis of the Memphis Nurse-Family Partnership Program (NFP), puts a widely-known voluntary home visiting program through its most rigorous analysis to date and finds important short- and long-term impacts for mothers and their children.

This study evaluates a randomized controlled trial of the NFP program conducted in Memphis, Tennessee in 1990. NFP aims to improve the long-term success of at-risk children by promoting healthy maternal behaviors and fostering strong parenting skills. It offers voluntary prenatal, parenting and early childhood supports to low-income, first-time mothers. The program consists of home visits starting during pregnancy and lasting until two years after birth. NFP home visitors are registered professional nurses with at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. They have formal training and follow a detailed curriculum of activities specific to the different stages of pregnancy and child development.

Researchers found that the home visiting program improved birth weights for infant boys, who tend to be more vulnerable during pregnancy. Low birth weights are associated with developmental problems early in life that can persist if left untreated. By the time children reached age two, researchers found the home visiting program had created healthier home environments, more positive parenting attitudes and better maternal mental health. At age six—four years after the program ended—the home visiting program led to improved cognitive skills for both boys and girls, and better socio-emotional skills for girls. Researchers found the positive effects at age six were largely attributable to the program’s impact on maternal health and early-life investments.

Read more about the study from the here.


Amanda P. Williford, Ph. D., Research Associate Professor, UVA CASTL (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Amanda Williford, a research associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, is leading the way in helping Virginia roll out the Kindergarten Readiness Program, a readiness assessment for incoming kindergartners.

The Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP) expands the assessment of children kindergarten beyond literacy (PALS), to include the school readiness domains of math, social skills, and self-regulation. The data provides school divisions with a more comprehensive understanding of how kindergarten students are entering elementary schools in terms of key readiness skills. Piloted in 2014, the program is now headed into its third year in partnership with the Virginia Department of Education and will be implemented at scale across the commonwealth this fall.

Williford recently sat down with UVA Today to discuss the need for such a program.

Q. What is Virginia’s Kindergarten Readiness Program about?

A. Virginia’s Kindergarten Readiness Program is an assessment system designed to help schools have a good understanding of where children are in their learning as they enter kindergarten. It measures a child’s readiness across four areas: math, literacy, social skills and self-regulation. What support will a child need to be successful in school? We can’t know that if we don’t have a good understanding of where they currently are.

Q. On a national level, where does Virginia stand in terms of assessing children’s kindergarten readiness?

A. Right now, Virginia is a little behind because the only consistent measure used by all school divisions, the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening, focuses solely on children’s literacy skills. In essence, Virginia has good information about children’s literacy skills as they enter kindergarten, but there is clear consensus that children need foundational skills across a wider range of early learning domains, like math, social skills and self-regulation.

Across the U.S., many states have kindergarten entry assessments that measure these multiple facets of learning. The Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program is working to follow suit.

Read more of the interview with Williford from UVA Today here.

Cultivating Social-Emotional Development in Children

Too Small to Fail recently released a white paper on the importance of cultivating a child’s social-emotional development from birth. Too Small to Fail defines social-emotional development as a combination of the relationships we share with others, emotional awareness, and the ability to recognize, understand, express, and respond to feelings in socially appropriate ways.

  • Social-emotional development plays several key roles in early childhood, from understanding feelings, to taking turns, to building healthy relationships with others. It is the foundation upon which much other learning takes place,
  • Children with strong social-emotional skills do better in school because they are more focused, can cooperate with and learn from others, and exhibit fewer behavioral problems,
  • Healthy social-emotional development in early childhood leads to better outcomes in adulthood, such as improved health, better jobs, and more stable relationships,
  • Positive parent-child (or caregiver-child) interactions offer benefits to parents and caregivers, in addition to better social-emotional development in children, and
  • There is a gap in understanding about social-emotional development, but if we improve intervention programs that support parents and caregivers, and undertake broad-based awareness efforts, we can help all children grow into healthy, successful adults.

Read more of the report from Too Small to Fail here.

Devan Maloney Consultant

Is Your School Division Part of the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP)?


The VKRP, based at The University of Virginia expands the assessment of children entering kindergarten beyond literacy (PALS), to include school readiness domains of math, social skills and self-regulation. This data provides school divisions with a more comprehensive understanding of how kindergarten students are entering elementary schools (at the fourth to sixth week of school) in terms of key readiness skills.

What are the Results?

In 2016, 40% of students in participating divisions entered kindergarten unprepared in at least one of the critical domains: literacy, math, self-regulation and social skills. One-third of all Virginia school divisions participated in 2016.

How Can Teachers, Division Leaders, Policy Makers and Stakeholders Use the Data?

Teachers- will have a comprehensive understanding of students’ skills upon kindergarten entry. This data can help differentiate and individualize instruction.  There are online instructional strategies to support students’ learning across all domains.

Parents- will have information about how children are doing in literacy, math, self-regulation and social skills. This will provide easy to read information and tips on how to strengthen these skills at home.

Division Leaders- will have benchmark data to target interventions and improve student outcomes.

Policy Makers– will have data to make strategic investments, align funding and interventions to improve student outcomes.

What’s New for 2017?

UVA CASTL heard you! Division leaders and teachers provided constructive feedback on ways to make VKRP an even more useful tool at the classroom, district and state level.  Find out more by visiting

Do You Want to Learn More?  

  •  Call UVA CASTL @ 866-301-8278, extension 1
  • Email
  • Visit

There are only a few slots left until UVA CASTL reaches the goal of 50% of all school divisions in Virginia participating.

Won’t you join this innovative group of school divisions leading the way with VKRP today?

President & CEO

Lisa Howard, President & CEO



What do Marshmallows have to do with Executive Function Skills?

Have you heard about the Stanford University marshmallow study? Many years ago, children between the ages of three and five were offered a marshmallow and told if they did not eat it, they’d be given another one. Those children who took the marshmallow and could not delay gratification had a higher rate of behavioral problems in school.

Executive functions are the cognitive abilities needed to control our thoughts, emotions and actions. That explains why we can’t say no to that chocolate chip cookie after a tough day at work. Just like the marshmallow test, these skills help us to say no to impulses and regulate our behavior.

Research tells us that executive function skills and social-emotional development are critically important and predictive to academic and life success.

What can you do with your child to nurture the development of these skills at every age throughout early childhood?

Infants and Toddlers

* Play peekaboo

* Say rhymes

* Read rhyming books aloud

* Talk about the object you are holding and try to keep their attention

* Sing songs with hand motions (Itsy bitsy spider)

* Play hiding games

* Take turns

* Encourage imaginary play (let them pretend to cook, clean or talk on the phone just like you do)

* Play simple matching games

* Play simple sorting games

* Talk, talk, talk about everything you see and do

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* Put puzzles together

* Pass a ball back and forth

* Sing songs

* Play movement games

* Climb, balance and skip outside

* Play matching games

* Sort objects by color, shape or size

* Cook together and let them follow the recipe and measure ingredients

* Play board and card games

* Go for a nature walk

* Make up a guessing game in the car

* Play I Spy in the car or on a walk

* Sort everything in your grocery cart by color or shape

* Talk about your feelings and let them do the same

Young children love to play dress up and use their imagination, so give them lots of opportunities for pretend play. Maybe it is twirling around the room as a ballet dancer, moving and sounding like a dinosaur or dressing up as a teacher, firefighter or veterinarian. Let them play, explore and have fun investigating the world around them. It is through these experiences that they will learn how to listen and communicate, play well with others and solve problems.

Lisa Howard headshot circle

Lisa Howard, President & CEO

March Madness & Soft Skills


March Madness is over (thank goodness)! What a game last night!! North Carolina beat Gonzaga 71-65. It was a nail-biter for anyone who watched. As a die-hard Tar Heel fan, this game was tough to watch especially after Villanova’s buzzer beater win last year over the Heels. Marcus Paige said it best last night in a Tweet, “Watching as a fan is way more stressful than playing.”

Both teams battled through poor shooting, Joel Berry II played with two hurt ankles, Williams-Goss played through injury, there were too many foul calls, missed foul shots and it was a sloppy, ugly battle between two No. 1 seeds.

Both Roy Williams and Mark Few along with their players took the high road and refused to blame the officiating crew. In fact, Mark Few said, “Those were three of the best officials in the entire country—NBA, college or anything.” The coaches and players showed qualities that matter on and off the court. They exhibited “soft skills” like: grit, perseverance, optimism, humility and self-control.

As parents, we can turn the pregame parties and post game celebrations into real life lessons for our children that will stick long after the buzzer sounds. We can use the game as a “teachable moment” to:

  • Let our children struggle and fail so they can learn to manage failure and learn from mistakes.
  • Give our children opportunities to experience disappointment and frustration. Encourage them to keep trying and to do their best.
  • Encourage our children to practice and work hard. This is what develops grit, perseverance, patience and discipline.
  • Show our children how to be courteous and humble and take the high road no matter what life throws your way.

Research tells us these “soft skills” are highly predictive to success in school, life and the workplace. And these skills begin during the early childhood years. Last night was a great night to be a Tar Heel, but it was also a great night to be a Zag.

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Lisa Howard President & CEO

Where is the “R” in STEM?

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Reading is foundational to many jobs in today’s economy, and it will be increasingly critical for the jobs that sustain our economic growth. According to an analysis by economists at Georgetown University, reading comprehension ranks third in “high intensity” use of broad skills across all occupations. A 2016 study found that workers had to be able to understand complex reading materials even in occupations that require no formal education.

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The U.S. is missing the mark. According to a 2015 ACT college and career readiness report, nationally only 26% of high school students met college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. One out of three (34%) met none of those benchmarks.

This problem cannot be fixed in middle and high school. By that time it is too late. By fourth grade, students are expected to be able to “read to learn.” Those with poor reading skills fall further and further behind. The research is clear that students must develop reading skills early to compete in the knowledge and technology driven economy.

If we want to set our children up for success, we must ensure they have high quality early education. Without a strong foundation, many children enter elementary school behind. In fact, a recent Business Roundtable report states that third graders who have not mastered a basic level of reading—are nearly 6x more likely to dropout.

STEM skills matter and need to be integrated with the development of strong reading skills from the early childhood classroom through third grade.

Take action today! Business and civic leaders have credibility and influence and can play a vital role in promoting a state policy agenda to ensure every child is on track and reading by the third grade.

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By Lisa Howard, President and CEO

Child Care Deserts

A report recently released by The Center for American Progress, “Child Care Deserts: An Analysis of Child Care Centers by ZIP Code in 8 States,” examines the location of child care centers and reveals that 42% of children under age 5 live in child care deserts. Eight states responded to the request to share administrative date on child care centers. These eight states represent one-fifth of the U.S. population under age 5.

The Center for American Progress defines a child care desert as any ZIP code with more than 30 children under age 5 that contains either zero child care centers or so few centers that there are more than three times as many young children as there are spaces in centers.

In Virginia, 40% of families live in a child care deserts. Virginia has one of the highest child care desert populations in the study.



When compared with its neighbor North Carolina – which has a larger population – Virginia has roughly 1 million more residents living in child care deserts. While the majority of Virginia’s population is suburban, most ZIP codes in the state are rural and include the homes of more than 2 million Virginians. Similar to many other states in the study, these communities have the highest likelihood of being child care deserts. As a result, two-thirds of Virginia’s children under age 5 living in rural areas reside in a child care desert.

Read more about this study on