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Originally published December 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 29, 2008 at 12:57 AM

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Assess all children before they enter school to help them learn

All Washington state school districts should assess all children for their readiness to learn, although a majority do now. Though state budget dollars are tight now, such screening should be part of basic education, and should be built into planning.

A recent survey of Washington elementary-school principals, preschool teachers and parents found vast support for preschool screening to determine if children are ready for kindergarten.

The question of whether to assess children at the outset of kindergarten is practically a no-brainer. There are few other ways for teachers to learn how to meet individual student needs. The majority of districts already screen children before they start kindergarten or soon afterward. But the effort is less effective because it is voluntary and not all districts do it, or can afford to.

A statewide policy on readiness testing would ensure proper assessment of students in all districts. This solution is backed by the state Department of Early Learning and is part of the agency's report to the governor and the state Legislature on early-learning needs.

The department's take on early assessments is credible, coming via a survey of schools statewide. Nearly half the schools that offer kindergarten in the state participated in the survey. A favorable sign is that the majority reported already testing kids going into kindergarten for language, literacy and communication skills.

About three-quarters do assessments on cognition and general knowledge. A smaller number look at physical well-being, health and motor development and a few assess social development and enthusiasm for learning.

It would make sense for all schools to assess children for developmental delays, allowing for earlier intervention. But only three-quarters of the schools in the study do so. Changing this ought to be a priority. Teachers teach best when they understand the needs of their students.

Enthusiasm for early screening is tempered by understandable concern over how the test would be paid for. The process, including tests, ought to be seen as a part of basic education and funded accordingly.

Budget shortfalls preclude statewide assessments for now. Gov. Christine Gregoire has proposed cutting education funding, including pulling $8.5 million from early-learning programs. But educators and lawmakers could, and should, start planning for universal school readiness screening down the road.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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