The Impact of Risk and Classroom Quality on Literacy & Numeracy

Classroom Quality and Risk Factors Profoundly Impact Children’s Performance 

Those who work every day with at-risk children know all-too-well the struggles these kids face in overcoming life challenges in order to reach their academic potential. Having the data to back up their real-world knowledge now gives them — and everyone else who advocates for Kansas children — a powerful case for the importance of investing in high-quality early education.

At the EC11 Summit, Wichita State University researchers shared graph after graph of strong evidence that children who face numerous risk factors, like poverty, score lower than their peers who do not. Yet, when these children are in high-quality early learning environments, their academic scores rise, ensuring they have a better chance of success when they enter school.

“As a researcher, in my whole career, I have never seen any data as clear as these. I ran the numbers twice because I kept thinking I had done something wrong,” said Dr. Lynn Schrepferman, senior research scientist at the WSU Center for Applied Research & Evaluation and the lead evaluator for the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund’s Early Childhood Block Grant program.

How do we know this is true? A few details about the data.

“I’m a big nerd: I like data,” Schrepferman laughed as she described her work, culling through the piles of myIndividual Growth & Development Indicators (myIGDIs) and Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) scores for Kansas children 3 to 5. But you don’t have to be a “big nerd” to get excited about her findings, which demonstrate outcomes for the programs that receive ECBG grants.

For the Common Measures Initiative, the researchers chose the myIGDIs and CLASS assessments because they most accurately document child, family, and classroom outcomes for the widest range of grantee programs. These assessments are deemed reliable and valid, sensitive to change, and have normed developmental benchmarks.

The myIGDIs are administered three times a year: fall, winter and spring. Children 4 to 5 years old are measured for literacy and children 3 to 5 years old are measured for numeracy. The Literacy component includes subtests in Picture Naming, Rhyming, Alliteration, Sound Identification, and Which One Doesn’t Belong. The Numeracy component includes subtests in Oral Counting, Quantity Comparison, Number Naming, and 1-to-1 Correspondence Counting.

Data reveal how life risk affects children’s scores

During the 2015-2016 evaluation year, the researchers studied children who had experienced up to four risk factors in their lives. Risk factors can include things like poverty, low parental education, and not speaking English as their primary language at home. Not surprisingly, the children who had experienced zero risk factors consistently scored the highest on the myIGDIs tests, with their achievement rising between the fall and winter tests, then generally holding steady between the winter and spring tests.

What did surprise the researchers was that the results for the students with one to four risk factors followed the same pattern. When at-risk children were part of an early education program, they made the same kinds of gains as the children who had no risk factors.

Data show how classroom quality impacts literacy and numeracy

Additional data gathered during the 2015-2016 evaluation year supported another long-held belief: When young children have great teachers, they do better in school and life. High-quality classrooms are predictive of educational success. And when teachers meet the social-emotional needs of their young pupils, making them feel safe and secure in school, the children make greater gains on test scores.

“Research shows that children who are engaged in classrooms with high-quality teacher interaction see greater academic and social gains,” shared Cassandra LeBrun-Martin, senior research associate with Wichita State University’s Center for Applied Research and Evaluation and affiliate CLASS trainer.

The CLASS assessments, administered in pre-K programs to assess teacher-child interactions, measure three domains: Emotional Support, Classroom Organization and Instructional Support.

Scores jump when teachers provide children with emotional support

The WSU researchers wanted to measure the impact teacher quality has on student performance, so they broke new ground by analyzing how children’s myIGDIs results were affected by the quality of their classroom environment, as measured by the CLASS. The data revealed something big: To help children make the greatest gains in literacy and numeracy, teachers must first create a classroom environment in which the children feel emotionally supported.

“We thought we would take our data and see what it looks like, for classrooms who met and didn’t meet quality standards, and how those compared to children’s myIGDIs scores,” LeBrun-Martin explained.

“We are the first ones to look at the myIGDIs and CLASS. No one else is doing this,” Schrepferman added.

The researchers evaluated 98 classrooms with a total of 795 children, comparing the results of the myIGDIs tests taken in the fall, winter and spring. The literacy scores of children in each of the Literacy domains — Picture Naming, Rhyming, Alliteration, Sound Identification, and Which One Doesn’t Belong? – went up considerably in classrooms that met quality standards versus those that did not. But notably, they went up the most in the classrooms where children had emotional support, defined by a warm relationship between teachers and students, teacher sensitivity to students, and a positive atmosphere.

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“The data show it gets better and better as the classroom meets quality standards in all the domains, but the biggest gap in scores is between the classrooms that did and did not meet the standard in Emotional Support,” LeBrun-Martin shared.

“You have to have the emotional support in a classroom – making and building the relationships, helping children manage their time and attention in the classroom – before you can move on to other aspects of learning. If a classroom is not meeting the children’s emotional supports, they are not getting to high-order thinking levels.”

The researchers found the same to be true when they analyzed the children’s numeracy scores. They evaluated teachers in 110 classrooms, with a total of 1,034 students. The data consistently showed that the students in classrooms that met quality standards scored far above students in classrooms that did not. Once again, the greatest discrepancy between the children’s scores was for those who were in classrooms where children experienced emotional supports.

When looking at the data overall, LeBrun-Martin said, “In all the scores, there is progress. And when you meet just one more domain, you get a jump in the test scores. Even the slightest improvement in classroom quality makes the children’s test scores go up.”

The EC-11 Summit was hosted by the Cabinet on April 18-19, 2017 and highlighted the importance of investing in Early Childhood. We know that there is an $11.00 return for every $1.00 invested in early childhood initiatives in Kansas. The EC to the 11th Power (EC11) Summit focused on the successes of Cabinet-funded initiatives and the power of those programs to improve the lives of children and families in Kansas.