Study Finds Majority of Kids Lagging in Cognitive Skills By 3rd Grade

A report by the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation calls for a comprehensive early-childhood education, particularly for low-income children, in light of evidence that early education is lacking.

The study of 13,000 young children tracked from kindergarten entry through middle school reveals that only about a third of them were on track with cognitive skills by 3rd grade. The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which publishes an annual ranking of child well-being called the Kids Count Data Book, released its findings in a policy report called The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success, writes Christina Samuels of Education Week.

The foundation's study was based on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten, a federally-funded data collection effort that tracked children who were in kindergarten in 1998-99 school year to spring 2007, when most would have been in 8th grade.

In the federal data collection process, the participating children were asked to answer questions to assess their literacy, math skills, and science skills. By 3rd grade, 56% were on track with physical development, 70% with social and emotional growth, and 74% in their level of school engagement, the data analysis showed.

But digging into the numbers revealed disparities between the overall group's well-being, and the well-being of black children, Hispanic children, and children growing up in poverty.

For example, 19% of 3rd graders in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line—in 2001, that was $35,920 for a family of four—were hitting their cognitive development milestones. In comparison, 50% of children in families above that income level hit that mark.

Additionally, the study found that 14% of black children and 19% of Hispanic children were on track in cognitive development.

Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy for the Foundation, said the findings were striking.

The connection between family education and income was also noteworthy. In more than half of the low-income families with children under age 8, the head of the household had a high school diploma or less. In half of the higher-income families, the head of the household had at least a bachelor's degree, according to the study.

The reports made several policy recommendations to address the gaps. Those recommendations include, among others, quality birth-through-8 education programs targeted at children from low-income families and promoting communication and joint training between early-childhood care providers and schools so that children's needs don't get lost in the transition from day care/preschool to kindergarten.

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