How children do in kindergarten is not a strong predictor of how they will fare in the primary grades, a new study has found.
The report by the Education Quality and Accountability Office released on Tuesday says that almost half of Ontario children who were considered in kindergarten to be at risk of falling behind in later grades were actually doing well by Grade 3. At the same time, among those deemed ready for school in kindergarten, 25 per cent failed to meet provincial standards in Grade 3 reading.
The study of more than 72,000 students predates the introduction of full-day kindergarten in Ontario in 2010, but its results suggest that many children were defying "the odds" before its introduction.
Philip DeCicca, an associate professor of economics at McMaster University, said the results are similar to work he has done where he found that full-day kindergarten has very short-term effects on learning, tailing off as early as the end of Grade 1. He contended that targeted programs for at-risk children may provide better learning outcomes.
"If you're going to use your resources wisely and you care about the kids who are not doing well, then you'd probably be better off doing something more tightly focused," he said.
The Ontario government has spent more than $1.45-billion in its rollout of full-day kindergarten. The program incorporates two years of a revamped curriculum for junior and senior kindergarten, and emphasizes play-based learning. Proponents have argued that early intervention through full-day kindergarten can help vulnerable children have a stronger start and better academic outcomes throughout school.
Charles Pascal, former chair of the EQAO and a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, who was the architect of Ontario's early learning plan, said full-day kindergarten is meant to help those who fail to perform academically. These are the children in the study who were deemed at risk or vulnerable and did not go on to meet Grade 3 provincial testing standards.
"This is all designed to completely eradicate the vulnerability rate," Mr. Pascal said. "Full-day kindergarten is going to positively and seriously make those Grade 3 results much better for the vulnerable and the at-risk."
The appeal of full-day kindergarten for families is also practical – it provides affordable childcare, and theoretically at least, allows children to stay in one place during the work day. (In many parts of Ontario, the integration of school and childcare remains disorganized.) Other provinces, including British Columbia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec, offer similar full-day programs for young children.
The Education Ministry pointed to prior studies that found that children in full-day kindergarten were ahead of half-day students in many academic areas. Education Minister Liz Sandals said that the study "shows that interventions in primary school years contribute to the later success for at-risk students. We know full-day learning is the best start we can give our kids. ... and that's why will continue to roll it out by 2014."
The study followed the progress of students who were in kindergarten between 2005 and 2008 through to their Grade 3 provincial test, which they took between 2008 and 2011. Children were assessed by their kindergarten teachers using an early development tool that measures such things as social competence, emotional maturity and language development, classifying pupils as very ready, ready, at risk and vulnerable. They completed a standardized test for reading, writing and math in Grade 3.
"It's very important not to be defeatist about this. If a child is vulnerable in kindergarten, it doesn't mean they're going to be unsuccessful all through school," said Michael Kozlow, director of data and support services at EQAO, which administers the province's standardized tests.
Toronto mom Deanna Yerichuk believes that the full-day learning model works for her five-year-old son, Milo Mitchell. Her older son, Emmett, now in Grade 2, was in half-day kindergarten and the transition into a full day was difficult. Ms. Yerichuk suspects Milo will have an easier time. Emmett took at least four months to adjust to Grade 1.
"I like the idea of full-day learning," she said. "We're quite stunned with how much Milo learns through his day at school."