Linking early education services to elementary education has become a strong focus of program development and evaluation in many communities. You may hear it as “Age 3 to Grade 3” or “alignment to the academic and social demands of elementary school” or the importance of helping children be “ready for school.” Regardless of the term, the idea is the same: Children develop across a trajectory, and services that promote development in preschool can and should support development after those children enroll in elementary school.

The Birth of “Age 3 to Grade 3”

This wasn’t always the case. For many years, early educators described their aspirations for young children as falling into domains like “fine and gross motor,” “cognition,” or “social competence.” The relation of these terms, and the skills and characteristics they represent, to required competence for children after preschool was of little concern. Rather, we were sure that these were the essential requirements of early childhood development.

Today, preschool programs exist in a broader context. More programs are operated by, or have formal relations to, elementary and secondary school programs. States and local communities are starting universal and targeted preschool programs intended specifically to help children succeed in later years. And accountability, a controversial but ever-more-common idea, is linking together what happens in early elementary school with the services we provide to younger children – and to the gains we help those children achieve. We early educators are stepping up, assuming our role as contributors to important and lifelong successes for the children and communities we serve.

What We Mean by “Academic Alignment”

To do this – to create preschool programs that change the odds for children in elementary school and beyond – requires going beyond simple words and commitments. It also requires careful attention to the design of preschool programs and intervention for preschool children. It requires alignment of early childhood and elementary/secondary services.

Alignment is the extent to which the curriculum, instruction, and assessment provided before and after entry to kindergarten is conceptually and empirically connected; think of two parts of one path that lead travelers consistently in the same direction. Without alignment, we run the real risk of providing preschool services that may help children learn…but fail to provide important skills and competencies that will help them continue to succeed.

We most often think of “alignment” as a feature of the intervention we provide. For instance, we can align the curriculum we provide preschoolers; do the skills and competencies we teach in early education create necessary and strong foundations for the learning that children will do in later years? Do our students learn vocabulary and concepts that relate to lessons and content they encounter in early grades? Are our outcome expectations – the preschool “grad standards” – consistent with the prerequisites or requirements for successful students in kindergarten and beyond?

This idea of alignment can also be extended to assessments that are used to support intervention planning, monitoring, and evaluation in early childhood programs. Alignment of assessment can occur in at least two ways – conceptually and empirically.

Conceptual alignment occurs when the measures used in preschool programs represent or assess the development continuum that leads to success in elementary school. Significant advances in theory and research (for instance, the report of the National Early Literacy Panel) offered a review of theory and research to identify preschool skills and competencies directly related to later success as readers. Similar efforts for mathematics, science, and other domains are providing stronger and stronger foundations for designing assessment systems that help monitor children’s development of essential preschool skills. Anticipating some reactions, this is not “pushing the academic curriculum down” to preschool, but rather identifying those preschool skills that set the foundation for later learning of academic competencies in elementary school and beyond.

Aligned Measures & Predicting Child Outcomes

Empirical alignment is, in some ways, the next step in developing measures that help link preschool and elementary school performance. At this level, researchers gather information about the ways in which preschool and elementary school measures connect statistically. Often, this will be described as a predictive validity study, where children assessed in preschool are again assessed in kindergarten or later grades, and we examine the degree to which preschool and elementary measures correlate. While other factors might influence these connections, the basic assumption is that if measures at each time period are appropriate and psychometrically rigorous and statistical relations across time are strong, that the earlier and later measures are indeed “aligned.”

myIGDIs Early Literacy and Early Numeracy are some of the few examples of “aligned measures” available to early educators. Both Literacy and Numeracy measures are conceptually aligned; at every stage in their development, the measures have been based on theoretical and empirical evaluations of young children’s development and the idea that measures collected “today” should directly assess a child’s progress toward competence “in the future.” IGDI researchers also continue to gather evidence of empirical alignment for all IGDIs, with ongoing studies of predictive relations between preschool and early elementary literacy and reading as well as overall school alignment.

In future months, we will explore both details of these preschool-to-elementary relations, and discuss ways that the use of elementary-aligned measures provide a strong foundation for preschool programs that support the long-term achievement and success of their students. Until then: Work hard, make a difference, and have fun!