Three out of four Illinois children starting kindergarten aren’t prepared. That’s according to data released Monday by the Illinois State Board of Education in conjunction with a power list of early childhood advocates who’ve spent nearly a decade lobbying for a baseline assessment.

Only 16 percent of low-income students, measured by those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, demonstrated readiness in the three core benchmarks: social-emotional learning, literacy, and math. But perhaps more surprising, wealthier districts reported low readiness scores, too, challenging common assumptions that tend to link richer communities with higher test scores.

Statewide, by race, 32 percent of Asian children and 29 percent of white children demonstrated readiness. The percentages of black and Latino children demonstrating readiness were lower, at 19 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Related: Diana Rauner sizes up the challenges ahead for early childhood education in Illinois 

The Kindergarten Individual Development Survey, aka KIDS, must be completed in the first 40 days of school, so it is not intended to gauge performance of districts or individual schools or teachers, said Jaclyn Matthews, a spokeswoman for the state board.

Rather, said Geoff Nagle, CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago child development brain trust, the survey holds a mirror up to how communities, and our society, fail to prepare children for kindergarten.

“We don’t do that. There’s no system to do that,” Nagle said. “Then the kids enter the K-12 system, they come in at all different capacities. For years, the schools haven’t been able to close the disparities, and we have blamed them.”

“It’s sobering data,” agreed Theresa Hawley, vice president of policy at Illinois Action for Children, an advocacy organization that trains child care providers across the state. “It points to what we’ve known all along: We need to be doing a better job of preparing kids for success across the board.”

More than 100,000 Illinois kindergarteners, or 81 percent of those enrolled in public programs, were observed for the survey, which was developed by San Francisco-based WestEd. There was no pen-and-paper or electronic test; rather, children were asked to perform such tasks as sharing art materials, sorting objects like buttons by shape and size, recognizing multiple letters, and acting out stories. Dual language learners were encouraged to participate in their home language or in English.


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State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith praised districts for undertaking the project. “Illinois’ kindergarten teachers and school and district leaders have shown extraordinary leadership in making the first year of KIDS data collection a success,” said Smith. “The data give families, teachers, and communities a powerful tool to advocate for the resources and supports all children need.”

Statewide, 42 percent of kindergarteners failed to display readiness in any category. And only 24 percent — one in four — demonstrated readiness across all three. Students were more prepared in social-emotional learning — that is, sharing, asking for help from adults, and raising hands to speak in class; nearly half of state kindergarteners met the social-emotional learning benchmarks. But when it came to math, readiness percentages dramatically fell: Only one in three students met the survey’s benchmarks, showing critical need for better preparation in preschool and childcare settings when it comes to numbers, shapes, and patterns.

“Parents are comfortable with the concept of literacy and reading to their kids before they go to sleep,” said ISBE’s Matthews. “But they’re not so comfortable with the activities that you need to build early math skills.”

At this stage in a young child’s life, said Nagle of the Erikson Institute, you don’t expect kids to grow and develop at equal competencies. So it’s not worrisome if a child is strong in one area and weaker in another. But it is troubling that 42 percent of Illinois kindergarteners didn’t demonstrate readiness in any area.

Still, he wasn’t surprised by the data. “We have a K-12 system that is taking steps to (incorporate) pre-K, but we need to create something more: something that starts with paid parental leave and high-quality infant-toddler systems. We have a smattering of services and great ideas, but none of them is currently at a scale that is going to move the needle.”

Related: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is on a high-speed timeline for his universal pre-K rollout

In Chicago, results tracked with state averages, with 22 percent, or one in five students, prepared for kindergarten. That percentage dropped to 17 percent when just low-income students were considered. However, only 68 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ kindergarteners’ evaluations were logged, reportedly due to a technical error. As with the state, a higher percentage of students demonstrated readiness in social-emotional learning (46 percent) and literacy (40 percent) compared with math (28 percent).  

Nine districts reported that 80 percent or more of their students were prepared: Albers, Allen-Otter Creek, Bannockburn, Cass, Community Consolidated District 2014 in Pickneyville, Gardner, Hartsburg Emden, Saunemin, and Vienna.

Conversely, dozens of districts reported that 10 percent or fewer of their students were ready, including the state’s second-largest district, Elgin’s U-46, and Cook County School District 130, which serves south suburban communities of Alsip, Blue Island, and Robbins. Both Elgin and the area around Blue Island are considered “child care deserts,” according to the Center for American Progress. A child care desert is a census tract where three children or more exceed each available licensed slot.   

Ginger Ostro, the executive director of Advance Illinois and a former budget director of Chicago schools, said the gaps in availability between seats and kids in need “absolutely cries out for additional investment.” Her group highlighted those gaps in a report in 2016.

“When you think about how important that connection is to what’s happening in the K-12 system, you want those systems aligned and reinforcing each other,” Ostro said. As kids grow up year by year, families don’t say, ‘now we’re in early childhood, now we’re in K12.’ They live their lives continuously, but we have disconnects in education systems that currently fail to reflect that continuity. The new KIDS data helps inform what we need to be doing to connect those important pieces and link the systems together.”

Hawley, of Illinois Action for Children, said Illinois communities should view the data as a rallying point to unite parents, educators, librarians, police, mental health providers and more over a common cause of better and earlier support for families. “It is not just a school issue.” Policy changes could include pushing more districts to adopt full-day preschool programs — following on the heels of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout — or adopting more widespread home visiting programs for newborns.

Whether states should measure kindergarten readiness, and exactly how to do it, is the subject of debate: According to the New America think tank, 40 states have adopted some kindergarten readiness assessment or are in process. In the vanguard are states such as Washington, which has touted a goal of 90 percent kindergarten preparedness by 2020.