Can kindergarten screening predict learning problems?

Screening kindergarten children for the purpose of identifying learning problems remains widely practiced, despite much criticism. One such critic, Genevieve Fedoruk, a teacher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Alberta, Canada, explains that current kindergarten screening techniques use a medical screening model which is inappropriate for use in education.

Educators developed kindergarten screening tests with good intentions, expecting they could do for education what medical screening does for disease control, namely, identify potential problems before they happen.

Unfortunately, Fedoruk writes, there are few similarities between physical illness and academic failure. Where a disease, for example, can be traced to the presence of a specific bacteria, the causes of learning problems can rarely be pinpointed with certainty. Apart from the identification of gross or profound handicaps, medical screening methods are inappropriate for ascertaining learning problems.

Situational factors important

Consider, for example, that when no obvious intellectual or sensory impairments are present, some children still have difficulty learning and functioning in school. Since learning is a complex process associated with the interaction of cognitive abilities, development, experience, parent-child relations, curriculum and teaching style, the causes of educational difficulties are less clearly defined than those of physical illnesses.

Essentially, the kindergarten screening methods now in use are not designed to take into account situational factors which may be contributing to a child’s learning problem. As educators know, it is not only the child’s abilities or skills, but the quality of the school and home environment that determines the level of success a child achieves in school.

Yet, while research in recent years has clearly demonstrated that teacher differences and other classroom variables are related to student achievement, kindergarten screening still relies almost exclusively on the child’s skills and sometimes on his/her behavioral characteristics to predict future achievement. For this reason, this child deficit or disease model on which the current screening process is based, greatly oversimplifies the nature of learning and results in inaccurate predictions.

We don’t expect, Fedoruk concludes, to be able to predict how a seedling will grow without knowing anything about the soil in which it is planted or the amount of sunlight and water it will receive. In fact, we assume quite the contrary; that barring any gross abnormality, it is precisely these environmental factors that will determine if the seedling will flourish. Screening can tell us something about what a child brings to the learning environment, but it is the learning environment in combination with these characteristics that determines the academic outcome.


“Kindergarten Screening for 1st Grade Learning Problems: The Conceptual Inadequacy of a Child Deficit Model” Childhood Education Volume 66, No. 1, p. 40-42.

Published in ERN September/October 1990 Volume 3 Number 4


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