Professor studies predictors of students' mathematics learning in K-5

University Park, Pa. — With the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, U.S. schoolchildren must demonstrate a proficiency in mathematics, among other topics. Children with learning difficulties may require early intervention services to succeed in mathematics. Paul Morgan, Penn State assistant professor of education, and two colleagues examined national data on kindergarten children to provide a means for identifying children who may need such help.
With a grant in 2007 of $492,000 from the U. S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, Morgan, along with George Farkas of the University of California, Irvine (formerly a professor at Penn State) and Penn State graduate student Qiong Wu, have been working to identify whether and to what extent learning difficulties in kindergarten predict continued difficulties as children move through elementary school. Their findings are being published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities in a study titled “Five-Year Growth Trajectories of Kindergarten Children with Learning Difficulties in Mathematics.” The study will shortly be available at the Journal’s OnlineFirst Web site at
The researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), a nationally representative dataset maintained by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NCES collected data on a large sample of children who participated in the ECLS-K during the fall and spring of kindergarten and the spring of first, third and fifth grades. Morgan used these data to estimate five-year growth trajectories in kindergarten children. With an analytical sample of 7,892 students, Morgan was able to use a much larger sample of students than had been previously used in studies. The children were individually administered measures of their reading and mathematics achievement. Age, socioeconomic status, gender and kindergarten retention, as well as additional factors, were used as control variables.
Morgan and his colleagues were particularly interested in whether the persistency and timing of mathematics difficulties (MD) in kindergarten predicted the children’s learning of mathematics initially (i.e., spring of first grade) and over time (i.e., spring of first grade to spring of fifth grade).
The study’s results indicated that children persistently displaying MD (i.e., those experiencing mathematics difficulties in both fall and spring of kindergarten) had the lowest subsequent growth rates. By fifth grade, these children’s averaged scores on the mathematics achievement measure were two standard deviations lower than those of children who had not displayed MD in kindergarten. Kindergarten children displaying MD in the spring only had the second-lowest growth rates. Children experiencing MD in the fall only (and who had thus “recovered” from their initial learning difficulties by spring of kindergarten) had the next lowest growth rates. The highest growth rates were observed for children who had not displayed MD in either fall or spring of kindergarten.
These results were observed both before and after extensive statistical control. They indicate that measuring the timing and persistence of kindergarten children’s mathematics learning difficulties “matters,” and may be one way to identify those most at risk for failing to become mathematically proficient during elementary school.
The researchers concluded that measures of MD taken in the fall and spring of kindergarten strongly predict a child’s growth trajectory in elementary school. Once these measures are accounted for, it is the child’s sociodemographics that are predictive of future growth in mathematics.
“An implication of our study seems to be that those young children who are repeatedly experiencing learning difficulties in mathematics should begin to receive some type of additional assistance — which should be delivered at least by the end of kindergarten — if they are to become mathematically proficient by the end of elementary school,” said Morgan. “Without such help, children repeatedly struggling to learn mathematics in kindergarten are very likely to still be struggling to learn mathematics in fifth grade.”
Morgan hopes the study will help educators consider new methods to help identify, prevent and remediate the early occurrence of learning difficulties in mathematics.
Last Updated November 18, 2010