Half of Kentucky’s kindergartners were ready in the fall to enter the public education system, and Jefferson County’s youngest students were slightly more prepared, according to state data released Thursday afternoon.  

This school year all kindergarten students in the state were tested for readiness. Each child was tested as they entered school in five developmental areas, including social, emotional and academic skills.

The results show 49 percent of Kentucky’s 50,000 kindergartners this year were ready for school. In Jefferson County, 52 percent of the 7,759 students were ready.

Update: Here’s a story with kindergarten readiness numbers from all JCPS elementary schools and graphics breaking down the data.

The information gives teachers, parents and communities a chance to target students’ specific needs—but they also offer a warning that many children aren’t being prepared early enough, education officials said.

One Louisville Teacher’s Example

Here’s the scene Wednesday at Farmer Elementary School near Jeffersontown.

Gina Kimery’s class begin with a group exercise, a song about math. Then students split into groups. Some  know more math than others;some are still learning English.

“At this table I’m able to help and make sure my [English language learner students] are able to understand the task. Then I provide support to those students who are having difficulty with the concept,” she explains while helping a student count and complete the exercise.

“Then the table over there the students are working independently.”

Kimery says the readiness test lets her know where each student stands—and she uses the results to shape her teaching.

“The ranges are very wide and in 17 years of teaching I’ve come to realize that there is no cookie cutter mode for any child,” she says.

That’s why educators such as Kimery say the readiness screening is important.

Plus, the screeners are the same across the state. If the kids move schools, so does their profile.

Related: Why Measuring What Kindergartners Know is Useful

“For the first time we have a true picture of where our children are developmentally at a specific point in time,” says Terry Tolan, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Early Childhood.

Parents can benefit from the tests, too, since they’ll know what they can do at home to help their kids get ahead, she says.

“Simple things like reading books to your child, even an infant that you think can’t understand,” Tolan says. “And even more so, having conversations with your child. Children from low income or families where there is not high educational attainment hear a much smaller number of words by the time they get to kindergarten.”

The screener is aligned with Kentucky’s education standards (also known as the Common Core standards), which students will be measured against until they graduate high school. That’s why it’s important to make sure students are on pace now, because studies have shown children who enter kindergarten behind academically are more likely to continue falling behind in school.

“There is a big difference in the learning of a child if they come in with the basic skills,” says Kevin Nicks, director of early childhood education for JCPS.

Then we can start on what they need to know in order to move up. Your first two or three years in primary grades are so important because we’re working on your basic skills.”

Educators say the screeners aren’t limited to use by teachers and parents. JCPS superintendent Donna Hargens says on a district level, the results are very helpful.

For instance, in JCPS schools the number of kindergarten readiness varies. At Minors Lane Elementary School 11 percent of students are kindergarten ready. At Stopher Elementary it’s 90 percent.

“The range is concerning because we want all of our students to be kindergarten ready. So when we see a school with a very low percentage of kindergarten readiness we know that gives us some kind of indication of where we need to put our efforts,” she says.

(We’ll post more on how each JCPS schools’ results soon.)

The goal, says Hargens, is to support more early childhood education opportunities, but funding has been an issue. State preschool funding reduced $830,000 from 2013 to 2014, officials say.

Back at Farmer Elementary, a student works on rolling dice and adding the numbers to get the sum, while Kimery moves between tables trying to spend as much time with the students who need it most.

When a student is ready, or they meet the standard, they’ll move to a table with similar students, she says.

But Kimery notes: While the screener measures certain academic and developmental strengths, valuable attributes like creativity can’t measure—that’s what also makes each kid special.