Policy Brief/Analysis

What is Readiness?

Preparing All Children to Succeed in Kindergarten and Beyond

By Sima Bernstein, W. Steven Barnett and Debra J. Ackerman

Kindergartners enter school with widely varying levels of skills and development across and within demographic groups. Children of families with higher socio-economic status (SES) score higher on “readiness assessments.” On average, Black and Hispanic children score lower than White non-Hispanic children. Readiness scores also vary substantially within each of these demographic groups, reflecting individual differences.

Because pre-academic and social-emotional capabilities at kindergarten entry predict later academic and social success, there has been great concern with the level of “readiness” at kindergarten entry. Many states require a kindergarten readiness assessment (KRA). However, how readiness is defined, who or what entity is doing the defining, and how this information is used varies greatly. Differences in prevailing theories about how young children learn have led to variations in definitions over time, as well.

This brief explores the existing definitions of readiness and the uses of readiness assessment data. The strengths and limitations of each of these approaches is closely examined. Suggestions for defining and measuring readiness and using KRAs follow.


  • Reframe the concept of “readiness” to indicate what an individual child is ready to learn in kindergarten instead of who is ready for a one-size-fits-all kindergarten.
  • Use KRAs to learn about children’s individual strengths, connect with parents, and guide differentiated learning.
  • Use aggregate data from readiness assessments to gauge the need for improvements in the systems that support early learning and development prior to kindergarten.
  • Employ broad readiness assessments as one of several sources of data, including information from parents and teachers. KRAs should rarely be used, and never alone, for high-stakes decisions about individual children or preschool providers.

The Authors

W. Steven (Steve) Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and the founder and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. Dr. Barnett’s work primarily focuses on public policies regarding early childhood education, child care, and child development.