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Screening for School Entry.

Hills, Tynette Wilson

TEXT: Screening programs for children entering school are widespread, and their use is increasing. Screening is used to predict which pupils are likely to have problems in regular classrooms and to identify those who may be eligible for particular programs, such as special education.

Screening practices vary greatly from state to state, according to a national survey (Gracey and others, 1984). There are differences in what child behaviors are sampled and in how, when, and from whom the information is obtained. There is also confusion about the purpose of screening and appropriate use of the information screening yields.

This digest summarizes current practices and issues in screening young children and lists recommendations for screening procedures used with children entering school.


The terms "screening" and "assessment" are not interchangeable. Screening is a preliminary process for identifying, from all the children, those who may be at risk of future difficulty in school (e.g., inability to meet academic expectations) and those who may have special needs in learning (e.g., extraordinary abilities and talents or handicapping conditions). In both cases, the identified children must be assessed more carefully to evaluate whether they do indeed require adaptations of the regular instructional program, or qualify for specialized educational placement.

Because screening is intended for all the children, the measures should be inexpensive, brief, simple to administer, and easy to interpret. Screening tools require lower predictive power than diagnostic measures. Thus, screening alone is not sufficient for decisions about a child's placement or kind of instruction. Further assessment is necessary for those decisions (Meisels and others, 1984).


Schools in many localities now screen age-eligible children to distinguish between those who are ready for school and those who are not. One reason for this trend is that escalating standards in the early grades have altered curriculum, causing more entering children to be at risk of failure. Screening for entry is an uncertain undertaking, however, since educators disagree about what determines a child's chances of success in school.

School entry is usually based upon birth date. When chronological age is the criterion, the 12-month age range, and individual differences in development and experience almost always result in a heterogeneous group. Schools have tried several measures to cope with that variation (Uphoff and Gilmore, 1985), for example:

--recommending that the youngest children delay entry --forming slower- paced classes for immature children --placing some children in transitional classes

Screening is often used to find those children who, after further assessment, seem to be good candidates for one of these options.

Keeping children in the regular program whenever possible may be more beneficial in the long run and can further equal educational opportunity (Laosa, 1977; May and Welch, 1986). Controlled studies of held-back children and those who went ahead do not show significant advantages for holding back (Shepard and Smith, 1985). Screening and assessment can be used to identify children who may need more individual help or smaller classes to remain with their peers.


The underlying question about screening at school entry is whether young children's behavior should be measured. Is screening harmful? Is it valid? Goodwin and Driscoll (1980) claim that charges of harm are not substantiated. Instead, the issues are what, how, when, and why.

What should screening measure or observe? Two basic kinds of tests are associated with screening and assessment of children entering school: school readiness tests and developmental screening tests (Meisels, l986). Readiness tests yield information about the extent to which a child has acquired the knowledge and skills considered to be important entry criteria for a particular program. Developmental screening tests, by contrast, provide information about a child's performance in broad areas of normal development and his or her potential to acquire further knowledge and skill. Both kinds of information can be important to early childhood educators, but one kind of measure cannot be substituted for the other. (For a discussion of criteria for readiness and developmental screening tests, and for specific examples of each, see Meisels, l986.)

How should children's abilities be measured? It is difficult to distinguish among the separate domains of functioning in young children. Tapping broad developmental areas -- language, intellectual and perceptual functioning, and gross and fine motor coordination -- will help to assure validity. Screening should include the social-emotional domain, since children with early behavioral problems often have problems later in school (Gracey and others, 1984).

Screening procedures should sample broadly what children know and can do in situations in which they are comfortable. Young children's behavior is affected by unfamiliar situations. If they have difficulty with the way they are to respond (e.g., using pencils to write or mark on forms), they may not be able to demonstrate their actual abilities. Information from multiple sources -- parents, teachers, and others, using informal tools to augment any tests and checklists -- will present a more adequate picture of a child's current functioning.

Educators who select screening instruments should insist upon accepted standards (Meisels and others, 1984):

--Were norm-referenced measures developed on a population including children like the ones to be screened? --Are the measures valid and reliable? --Are they sensitive, correctly identifying children possibly at risk? --Are they specific, correctly excluding others from further assessment?

When should children be screened? Young children change rapidly, especially in social-emotional development (Gallerani and others, 1982). Factors of individual growth may cause problems to appear later, although they were not evident initially. Or early problems may be overcome with further development and learning. For these reasons, further screening should be done periodically.

How should screening information be used? Children identified by screening as problematic should be assessed diagnostically. Assessment results should guide decisions about the educational programs children need. Otherwise, children may be:

--unfairly excluded from needed services or placed inappropriately -- kept in a program that no longer meets their needs --subjected to lowered teacher expectations, diluted curriculum or narrow homogeneous groupings, all of which constrict their opportunities to learn (Gredler, 1984).


The use of screening to identify children who may be prone to academic problems and children who may be eligible for specialized educational services is now prevalent at school entry and is likely to continue. To insure that all such children are correctly identified, subsequently assessed, and ultimately offered appropriate education, educators should:

--clarify the purpose of screening for teacher, parents, administrators, and any others involved

--keep informed about research concerning screening tools, their adequacy, and their usefulness with particular groups of children

--adopt procedures that screen for current levels of functioning in a broad range of domains

--rescreen periodically and assess diagnostically to confirm children's needs

--keep standards for curricula and instruction appropriate for the vast majority of eligible children, customizing learning activities for individuals.

Screening programs should be used to identify those children who may need special kinds of help to function well in school, not to exclude them from programs for which they are legally eligible. Sound, ethical practice is to accept children in all their variety, identify any special needs they have, and offer them the best possible opportunity to grow and learn.


Gallerani, David, Myra O'Regan, and Helen Reinherz. "Prekindergarten Screening: How Well Does It Predict Readiness for First Grade?" PSYCHOLOGY IN THE SCHOOLS 19(1982):175-182.

Goodwin, William L., and Laura A. Driscoll. HANDBOOK FOR MEASUREMENT AND EVALUATION IN EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1980.

Gracey, Cheryl A., Carey V. Azzara, and Helen Reinherz. "Screening Revisited: A Survey of U. S. Requirements." THE JOURNAL OF SPECIAL EDUCATION 18(1984):101-107.

Gredler, Gilbert R. "Transition Classes: A Viable Alternative for the At-Risk Child?" PSYCHOLOGY IN THE SCHOOLS 21(1984):463-470.

Laosa, Luis M. "Nonbiased Assessment of Children's Abilities: Historical Antecedents and Current Issues." In PSYCHOLOGICAL AND EDUCATIONAL ASSESSMENT OF MINORITY CHILDREN, ed. Thomas Oakland. New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1977.

May, Deborah C., and Edward L. Welch. "Screening for School Readiness: The Influence of Birthdate and Sex." PSYCHOLOGY IN THE SCHOOLS 23(1986):100- 105.

Meisels, Samuel J. "Testing Four- and Five-Year-Olds: Response to Salzer and to Shepard and Smith." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 44(l986):90-92.

Meisels, Samuel J., Martha S. Wiske, and Terrence Tivnan. "Predicting School Performance with the Early Screening Inventory." PSYCHOLOGY IN THE SCHOOLS 21(1984):25-33.

Shepard, Lorrie A., and Mary L. Smith. BOULDER VALLEY KINDERGARTEN STUDY: RETENTION PRACTICES AND RETENTION EFFECTS. Boulder, CO: Boulder Valley Public Schools, 1985.

Uphoff, James K., and June Gilmore. "Pupil Age at School Entrance -- How Many Are Ready for Success?" EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 43(1985):86-90.


This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under OERI contract. The opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of OERI or the Department of Education

Title: Screening for School Entry.
Author: Hills, Tynette Wilson
Publication Year: 1987
Document Type: Eric Product (071); Position Paper (120); Eric Digests (selected) (073)
Target Audience: Practitioners
ERIC Identifier: ED281607
This document is available from the ERIC Document Reproduction Service.

Descriptors: Early Childhood Education; Identification; Kindergarten; * School Entrance Age; * School Readiness Tests; * Screening Tests; Test Validity; * Testing Problems; * Young Children

Identifiers: ERIC Digests; *Screening Procedures

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