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Lessons Learned Early: Why VPK Teachers Want To Test Students Before Summer Break

child in classroom
Lesley Show via Flickr

Any 4-year-old in Florida can go to prekindergarten for free. The state-funded program is aimed at getting the youngest students ready for kindergarten.

In our “Lessons Learned Early” series, we following two prekindergarteners through their first year of school ever.


Emma Medlin gets to go to Voluntary Prekindergarten, or VPK, for free because she’s 4. Florida has no minimum income requirement to get the pro-bono education. Around 75 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds attend. Emma attends VPK on the University of North Florida campus.

In 2011, state data show, 79 percent of children who finished VPK were ready for kindergarten. Just 55 percent of non-VPK kids were ready.

VPK schools must follow state standards, including administering assessments.

By October, VPK students had taken their first test. They’ll take another this school year, and then get tested again during the first month of kindergarten.

In October, Emma was at a coloring table with her classmates. Sitting beside her in a tiny chair was John Seng. He said he prefers the other art center nearby, where he can paint.

A lot of VPK learning happens through play. The classroom looks like a playroom.

At the end of the school day, John’s dad Henry Seng picked him up. He brought along John’s scores from his first assessment.

“At his age I would have never thought to do an assessment to know his level. He’s 4,” Seng said. “Having the assessment and knowing where he’s at allows me to understand where he’s at in preparing him at home as well.”

The assessments tests four skills: written language, phonological awareness, vocabulary and math. John met or exceeded expectations in all categories but math.

“The assessment shows that he’s below expectation for math,” Seng  said. “And so that tells us we need to work on math.”

Emma’s mom, Brittany Medlin says her daughter scored below average in all categories but phonological awareness.

“I was a little worried until I started talking to other parents, and their students weren’t up to par either,” she said. “But even just since the preassessment, I’ve seen a complete change in her.”

She says Emma is now sounding out words and has come completely out of her shell around the other kids.

The assessments take about 20 minutes. Kids are pulled aside to take them individually.

Theresa Little directs Christ the King Child Care, a VPK in Arlington. On a recent day in her classroom, she pulled out an assessment that looks like a flipbook. The child answers most questions by pointing to a picture. The teacher asks all the questions verbally.

Little read a question that a lot of students get wrong: “'Listen carefully to what I say and then say the word you hear. My word is ‘maybe.’ Say, ‘Maybe.’ So the child would say, ‘Maybe.’ Now say, ‘Maybe’ without ‘be.’”

VPKs are graded on how ready their students are for kindergarten, and that score is given by the child’s kindergarten teacher. Little says she and other VPK operators plan to lobby the state Legislature to shift that test to before summer break.

She says when students are tested after summer break, it’s unfair to the VPK because the kids may have forgotten some of what they’ve learned over the break, and they’re also in a new environment and less comfortable.

“When that child goes into the first 30 days of kindergarten and that teacher is saying, ‘Oh, he doesn’t meet the criteria,' do you know how deflating that can be for a child? And for their family?” she says. “Maybe in the beginning of VPK they were below expectations, but by the end of VPK, ‘Hey, I know what my letters are.’ And that’s a huge increase for that child.”

But if VPKs administered the final assessment, they would essentially be scoring themselves. She says perhaps a third party could test a sample of students to ensure objectivity. But that would cost money.

The state gives VPKs about $2,400 a year for each student. That’s enough for kids to go to school three hours a day.

Susan Main is CEO of The Early Learning Coalition of Duval, which oversees the county’s 406 VPKs.

“Well we’ve lost money in VPK per-child student allocation,” she says. “In 2007 it was up to I think $2,700.”

She says ideally, the school day would be a little longer, and teachers would get more training and higher pay. She also believes students should be graded on progress instead of proficiency.

“If we really looked at where the child came in when they started the VPK program and what he or she looked like in growth at the end, and we use that to calculate the readiness rate, I think that we would a really better picture of what’s really happening,” she says.

In her office on Jacksonville’s Southside, she pulled up Florida’s VPK ranking from the National Institute for Early Education.

The institute grades each state on 10 benchmark quality standards. Florida meets just three.

“We do have good comprehensive standards, and we have a good class size — that’s 20 or lower is required for VPK — and we do, do onsite monitoring of our VPK programs,” she said.

On the other hand, there’s Georgia, whichmeets eight of the 10 benchmarks.

“They also require higher degrees. They actually have B.A.’s as a requirement, and specialized training,” she says. “They have meals. They have a longer day.”

Georgia also pays more than $1,000 more than Florida per student. But Main says Georgia’s been funding VPK a decade longer than Florida has. Her goal is to encourage Florida policymakers to bring Florida up to speed.  

Next in WJCT’s “Lessons Learned Early” series, we’ll take a look at then and now: how preschool has evolved in Florida.