School Readiness

paint hands going from child-size to adult

School Readiness

A child's school readiness involves all aspects of development, including the ability to follow directions, hold a crayon, speak understandably, identify shapes/letters/numbers, share with others, and separate from parents without being upset.

Why is This Important?

In order to fully benefit from the instruction provided in kindergarten, children must come to school with many fundamental skills already established. Years of research on child development and early learning show that several interrelated areas of development define school readiness:

  • Physical well-being and motor development
  • Personal and social development
  • The child's approach to learning
  • Language development
  • Cognition and general knowledge

These areas of development are important because they build on one another and form the foundation for learning and social interaction.

How is Virginia Doing?

While no uniform single "readiness" assessment is widely used for all aspects of development, Virginia does use a screening tool to identify students who are at risk for reading difficulties. The Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening for Kindergarten (PALS-K) assessment is used to identify students who are below kindergarten-level expectations in important literacy fundamentals. Students identified below these benchmarks are provided with additional instruction through Virginia's Early Intervention Reading Initiative (EIRI).

School Readiness by Virginia Region, as Measured by the PALS-K Assessment. See text for explanation.

Because the initial screening with PALS-K is conducted in the fall of each school year, the results reflect how well-prepared children come to school in terms of literacy fundamentals. Testing using the PALS-K assessment began in 2004. Scores largely improved until 2012 but have mostly been dropping since.

The Virginia average for kindergartners who met or exceeded the PALS-K benchmark in 2016 was 85.3 percent, another decline from the 86.1 percent seen in 2015. The Hampton Roads region saw the state's only improved performance and continued to lead the state with 89.5 percent at or above the benchmark, followed by the Northern (85.0%) and West Central (84.3%) regions.

The PALS-K is designed as an assessment of literacy readiness and is not intended as a comprehensive measure of school readiness.  Some school divisions use more broad-ranging assessments: The Work Sampling System is a research-based assessment that charts children's growth in personal and social development, language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, and physical development and health. Because this assessment is not used in all school divisions, statewide data is not available.

What Influences School Readiness?

Many factors affect student readiness for school. A lack of prenatal care and low birth weight (commonly associated with teenage pregnancies) are health-related factors; while poverty, abuse or neglect and even parental education levels are socioeconomic factors which can have significant impact on a child’s readiness for school.

High-quality preschool programs support school readiness. Longitudinal studies of these early childhood programs find increased test scores, decreased rates of being held back a grade in school, and decreased placement in special education among low-income children. Longer-term studies also find increased high school graduation and decreased crime and delinquency rates.

Evidence shows that it is not only low-income students who may benefit from preschool. Nationwide, one in every six kindergartners needs specialized one-on-one tutoring or special instruction in a small group. Nearly half (49 percent) who enter kindergarten without the ability to recognize the letters of the alphabet are middle-income children, while 12 percent of middle-income children repeat a grade in school.

What is the State's Role?

Because most of the factors affecting school readiness are largely beyond the reach of the school system, the state's role is to act as a catalyst for positive change. Local governments and community agencies work to decrease teen births, increase maternal educational levels, enhance prenatal care, and reduce environmental hazards such as lead-based paint.

The state also has a role in early intervention programs for children from birth to three years, access to quality preschool, and child health insurance programs. In addition, through assessments like PALS-K, the state can help identify students who are insufficiently prepared and provide additional resources to meet the needs of those children.

Page last modified June 22, 2017
School Readiness of Virginia's Kindergarten Children

State rankings are ordered so that #1 is understood to be the best.

Data Definitions and Sources

University of Virginia, Department of Curriculum, Instruction & Special Education

2016 KIDS COUNT Data Book,
Additional Annie E. Casey Foundation resources are also available:

The PEW Charitable Trusts, "Why All Children Benefit from Pre-K"

See the Data Sources and Updates Calendar for a detailed list of the data resources used for indicator measures on Virginia Performs.

At a Glance:
School Readiness in Virginia

Performance Trend: Trend is worsening.
State Influence:  

Virginia by Region: The Hampton Roads region again led the state with 89.5% of assessed kindergartners meeting or exceeding the PALS-K benchmark for literacy readiness in 2016. However, scores in every region have been declining since 2012.

Related Agency Measures
State Programs & Initiatives

The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation leads and coordinates collaborative efforts to build a statewide, comprehensive system of high-quality early childhood care, education, and health services for Virginia's youngest citizens. Through its Smart Beginnings initiative, the Foundation brings a results-oriented approach to investments to increase school readiness.

VECF's new School Readiness Report Card site offers detailed data on outcomes related to preschool performance by Virginia children; features include an interactive outcomes map and a full print report ready for download.

The Virginia Department of Education provides various resources for preschool children, including covering at-risk 4-year-olds who are not served by Head Start.

Additional Information

Head Start is a federal program that promotes the school readiness of low-income children from infancy to age 5 by enhancing their cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Unlike K-12 education, there is no real uniformity to how states approach early childhood education (beyond what's available through Head Start).  However, the National Institute of Early Education Research is an advocacy and research organization that does provide an annual report on the resources states give to early education, as well as other research outlining the results of such programs in selected states.