Anyone familiar with Chicago schools has probably heard at least one story about kindergartners who don’t know their colors and can’t identify a triangle or a square.

In 1988, a survey by the Chicago Sun-Times found that most kindergartners could not, among other things, speak in complete sentences or say their first and last names. The survey was updated in 1994, with similar findings.

Now, a study by Board of Education researchers suggests that the problem is getting worse.

Researchers compiled comparative scores on school readiness tests for some 8,600 preschoolers, from 1987-88 and 1994-95; 6,400 were in state prekindergartens at 78 schools, and 2,200 were in the district’s 24 child-parent centers.

All the children had taken the Chicago EARLY, a skills test that measures children’s memory, visual discrimination, language development and gross- and fine-motor skills. As part of the test, children might, for instance, be asked to point to a particular object, sort objects by shape, walk on a line, or draw a circle and a cross.

The state prekindergartners also had taken the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, which asks children to describe objects or scenes depicted in a set of pictures—for example, a house or an apple.

Overall, children in both programs posted lower scores in 1994-95 than in 1987-88.

In 1988, 67 percent of state prekindergarten children scored at or below the 10th percentile on the Peabody, meaning that they did worse than 90 percent of children nationwide. By 1994, the percentage had risen to 79.

In 1987, 14 percent of child-parent-center children correctly answered 80 percent or more of the items on the EARLY. By 1995, the percentage had dropped to 10.

The study also concluded that children’s emotional and social skills were getting worse. In 1988, 24 percent of state prekindergarten children could not pay attention long enough to complete a vision screening, and 20 percent could not complete a hearing test. By 1994, the percentages had risen to 41 percent and 33 percent, respectively.

While these results suggest a stiffer challenge for schools, early childhood expert Barbara Bowman, president of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, cautions against setting low expectations for children on the basis of test scores.

Most children, no matter what type of environment they are from, are mentally normal and are perfectly capable of learning “what’s available for them to learn,” Bowman says.

But inner-city children, Bowman points out, often aren’t taught “the things schools want you to learn before you come,” such as the alphabet and numbers. “If you come to school without those things, people [mistakenly] think you’re not smart. You may have the same knowledge as other kids in the same community—the question is, what do schools expect?”

Meanwhile, results of a 1993 survey of more than 1,400 kindergarten teachers across the country tend to support Bowman’s view. The survey, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, asked the teachers to rate the value of 15 traits as indicators of a child’s readiness for school.

The only traits that most teachers rated “essential” or “very important” were being well-nourished, rested and in good physical health; having the ability to communicate needs and thoughts verbally in their native language; and having enthusiasm and curiosity for new activities.

The two traits that a majority of teachers rated as “not at all important” or “not very important” were being able to count to 20 and knowing the letters of the alphabet.

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