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Running head: THE USE OF FORMAL ASSESSMENT TOOLS TO DETERMINE

MATHEMATICAL DIFFICULTIES IN KINDERGARTEN

The Use of Formal Assessment Tools to Determine Mathematical Difficulties in Kindergarten
Amy Donovan
University of Calgary

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In the complex and often controversial area of learning disabilities, professionals unite
around a belief in doing what is best for the child. Indeed, there are few who would dispute that
the heart of all decision making where children are concerned, whether it is instructional,
assessment or otherwise, is what will be in the child’s best interest. Yet, beyond this deeply
rooted belief, there is not always agreement amongst professionals regarding what constitutes
“best for the child” or the process to follow in order to achieve it. Likewise, discrepancies often
exist amongst professionals concerning the defining characteristics of learning disabilities, the
early predictors and the most effective assessment tools for screening and diagnosis. Assessing
children for disabilities in the area of mathematics provides particular challenges. Lack of
research in mathematics disabilities, comparable to disabilities in the area of reading and
language, is problematic compounded by the inconsistency in the skills deemed essential to
assess (Mazzocco & Myers, 2003; Mazzocco, 2005). As Mazzocco & Myers (2003) suggest, in
the absence of a universally accepted definition of math disability and defining core deficits,
challenges will remain for researchers and practitioners as they attempt to assess and diagnose
learning disabilities.
The research that does exist largely supports the use of norm-referenced assessment tools
in the diagnosis of mathematical learning difficulties in kindergarten (Jordan, Kaplan, Nabors &
Locuniak, 2006; Lembke & Foegen, 2009; Locuniak & Jordan, 2008; Mazzocco & Myers, 2003;
Mazzocco, 2005; Mazzocco & Thompson, 2005; Stock, Desoete & Roeyers, 2010). Normreferenced assessment data provides a comparison between a child’s performance with that of
same age peers, providing information to aid in decision making (McLouglin & Lewis, 2008).
Results can potentially identify areas of difficulty with the goal of planning interventions that

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will teach the skills and strategies to enhance a child’s ability in the identified areas of weakness
(Fuchs, Fuchs, Compton, Bryant, Hamlett & Seethaler, 2007; Hallahan, Kauffman, Weiss &
Martinez, 2005; McLoughlin & Lewis, 2008 ). Research reveals the positive impact that early
identification of learning disabilities and intervention can have on students future academic
success (Fuchs, Fuchs, Compton, Bryant, Hamlett & Seethaler, 2007; Gersten, Jordan & Flojo,
2005; Hallahan, Kauffman, Weiss & Martinez, 2005; Jordan, , Kaplan, Nabors & Locuniak,
2006; Lembke & Foegen, 2009; McLoughlin & Lewis, 2008; Teisl, Mazzocco & Myers, 2011).
Such intervention not only improves a child’s chance of future achievement but can contribute to
their success as an adult in a society which places value on mathematical knowledge (Clarke &
Shinn, 2004; Lembke & Foegen, 2009; Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009).
Despite the data that can be obtained through formal testing, criticism exists surrounding
the adequacy of screening measures in the diagnosis of mathematical learning disabilities.
Mainly, traditional screening instruments “... have included a lack of theoretical basis for their
selection, inadequate internal consistency, lack of predictive validity, and especially, their
excessive cost in relation to their outcomes” (Teisl, Mazzocco & Myers, 2011, p 286).
Researchers also caution against the use of these screening measures in the assessment of young
children, whose cognitive development is characterized by variation (Teisl, Mazzocco & Myers,
2011; Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009). Thus, the question remains, should formal assessments be
used for the assessment and diagnosis of mathematical learning disabilities in kindergarten
children? How early is too early? Are other screening methods available that would be more
effective for this age group? How long should we wait before formally assessing struggling

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students? What follows is a brief review of current literature related to the formal assessment of
mathematics in kindergarten children for the purpose of investigating these questions.
Most children develop number sense before the start of formal schooling (Jordan, Kaplan,
Nabors & Locuniak, 2006). By the age of four months old, typically developing infants can
discriminate between arrangements of two and three objects (Hallahan, Lloyd, Kauffman, Weiss
& Martinez, 2005). By eighteen months, toddlers have an understanding of numerical order
(Hallahan, Lloyd, Kauffman, Weiss & Martinez, 2005). During the preschool years, children
begin to count, identify numbers and develop general number sense through informal
experiences in mathematics (Hallahan, Lloyd, Kauffman, Weiss & Martinez, 2005; Jordan,
Kaplan, Nabors & Locuniak, 2006). Thus, at the beginning of formal schooling, children arrive
with a range of foundational knowledge depending on their prior exposure to and experience
with mathematics. Early ability in the fundamentals of mathematics is a significant predictor of
later school achievement (Stock, Desoete & Roeyers, 2009). Documentation of the prevalence of
mathematical learning disabilities reveals that between five and eight percent of school-age
children have some form of deficit that impacts their learning of key mathematical concepts
(Geary, 2004). With this statistic in mind and the importance of developing mathematical
concepts and procedures, it is necessary for continued research into this aspect of learning
disabilities.
While the lack of research is in itself a challenge for diagnosing disabilities and
consequently planning effective educational programming, so too is the lack of consensus
regarding the criteria that defines learning disabilities in the area of mathematics (Mazzocco &
Myers, 2003, Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009). Though there are commonalities among definitions

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within the literature and an overlap in the mathematical competencies included as early
predictors, discrepancies are present. For example, Gersten, Jordan & Flojo (2005) suggested
that the retrieval of arithmetic facts and counting strategies used in problem solving are two
factors which later affect the ability to understand algebra and the complexities of math concepts.
Mazzocco (2005), having completed extensive research with kindergarten children, has
determined items such as reading one-digit numerals, number constancy, adding one digit
numbers using manipulatives and magnitude judgements between one-digit numbers to be
effective predictors of later math disabilities. Further, Mazzoco’s & Thompson’s (2005) research
suggested that students with disabilities in the area of mathematics share common cognitive
characteristics. Examining math achievement scores, students with disabilities score below
average, performing poorly in the areas of verbal short term memory, phonological memory,
math fact retrieval and visual-spatial reasoning tasks. Stock, Desoete & Roeyers (2010) referred
to Piaget’s research, suggesting that preparatory arithmetic abilities include seriation,
classification, conservation and inclusion. In addition, they included the procedural and
conceptual knowledge required for counting, subitizing and magnitude comparison which
comprise basic number sense, all of which contribute to numerical competency and automaticity.
Jordan, Nabors & Locuniak (2006) placed emphasis on measuring the skill areas of counting,
number knowledge, number transformations, estimation and patterns in their research. Geary
(2004) identified math disabilities by the use of simple counting and problem solving strategies
which may be explained by poor working memory as well as difficulty storing facts and
accessing them from long term memory. While not an exhaustive review, these examples
illustrate the variety that exists in defining the key predictors of mathematical learning

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disabilities. Considering the range of acceptable defining characteristics, it is not surprising that
the identification of learning disabilities in the area of mathematics provides a challenge for
professionals. What researchers do agree on is the need for longitudinal studies to track student
progress in order to gain accurate information regarding the persistence of learning disabilities
and the benefits of specific instruction. Assessment data from children in kindergarten allows for
the study of mathematical development over time, further determining the predictive ability of
formal assessment tools to identify children in need of intervention (Geary, 2004; Gersten,
Jordan & Flojo,2005; Jordan, Kaplan, Nabors & Locuniak, 2006; Mazzocco, 2005; Stock,
Desoete & Roeyers, 2010). Examples of assessment tools used for this purpose throughout the
research includes the Test of Early Math Ability-2, Woodcock-Johnson Test of Achievement
Revised, Test for the Diagnosis of Mathematical Competencies, and the KeyMath-Revised. For
the purpose of measuring IQ, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-3 rd edition and the
Stanford-Binet-4th edition were used. Measures of IQ were used in select studies to compare
academic performance with intellectual capacity however the use of a discrepancy model alone
is not considered acceptable for the diagnosis of mathematical learning disabilities (Mazzocco &
Thompson, 2005; Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009).
The benefits of assessing kindergarten children using a standardized assessment tool are
widespread in the research. Identifying students with learning disabilities in the area of
mathematics in the early years of formal schooling is critical for academic success, allowing for
the implementation of interventions, building confidence and competence (Fuchs, Fuchs,
Compton, Bryant, Hamlett & Seethaler, 2007; Jordan, Kaplan, Nabors & Locuniak, 2006;
Locuniak & Jordan, 2008, Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009). Morgan, Farkas & Wu (2009) pointed

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to the persistent nature of learning difficulties in the area of mathematics, recommending
intensive early intervention to address deficits and develop skill proficiency. Similarly, Fuchs et
al. (2007) suggested that early identification “...in kindergarten or first grade, permits students to
participate in prevention services before the onset of substantial academic deficits” (Fuchs,
Fuchs, Compton, Bryant, Hamlett & Seethaler, 2007, p. 312). A case in point, “...average fifth
grade mathematics scores for those repeatedly displaying math difficulties in kindergarten was
more than two standard deviations lower than average fifth grade math scores for those who had
not displayed such math difficulties in kindergarten” (Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009, p.317). The
persistence of math difficulties as illustrated by this example supports the notion of assessing
students who experience difficulty with mathematics early in their school career to determine the
need for interventions that may prevent future failure in mathematics (Jordan, Kaplan, Nabors &
Locuniak, 2006).
The appropriateness of using such standardized instruments with kindergarten children
has been questioned, despite the notable benefits (Geary, 2004; Shepard, 1994; Teisel, Mazzocco
& Myers, 2001). As previously discussed, some children enter formal schooling with many
mathematical experiences and more background knowledge than their peers (Gersten, Jordan, &
Flojo, 2005; Jordan, Kaplan, Nabors & Locuniak, 2006; Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009). Though
clearly at a disadvantage, it is reasonable to believe that children with deficits due to lack of
exposure can catch up to their peers with adequate instruction and opportunities to experience
math. Research supports this “cumulative growth” model related to learning in mathematics,
suggesting that through meaningful interactions with their parents, teacher and peers, children
continually acquire mathematical understanding (Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009). Systematic

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instruction within the school setting has proven successful in building the mathematical
knowledge and skill lacking prior to school entry (Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009). Considering
this research, rich experiences and effective mathematics instruction for all students in
kindergarten attempts to even the playing field. Should children in their first year of formal
schooling be given the opportunity to catch up to their peers prior to being assessed for possible
learning disabilities in mathematics? Shepard would support this notion, cautioning against
“...confounding the ability to learn with past opportunity to learn” (Shepard, 1994, p.210).
Though there is ample research showing the persistence of mathematical difficulties over
time, there is also research which reveals the variable nature of mathematical difficulties in
children (Gersten, Jordan & Flojo, 2005). Scores on standardized tests show that some children
who experienced difficulty in grade one no longer scored in the below average range in grade
two. Geary’s (2004) research supports this finding, stating that achievement test scores can vary
from year to year, citing examples of children who score low on achievement tests during one
academic year and score average or above in subsequent years. While Gersten, Jordan & Flojo
(2005) suggest the misidentification of children as an explanation, the possibility of children
simply outgrowing their developmental delays was also proposed. Likewise, research by
Lochinuk & Jordan (2008) supports the notion that children can overcome deficits in
mathematics as they mature, pointing to the benefits of providing time for children to develop
their mathematical knowledge and skills rather than prematurely assessing for disabilities.
A question also emerges from Gersten, Jordan & Flojo’s (2005) research regarding the
usefulness of standardized measures, specifically math achievement tests, to determine areas of

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deficit. Due to the wide array of skills that math achievement tests assess, the possibility exists
that scores show average performance in these areas, while a deficit exists.
Standardized achievement tests sample a broad range of arithmetical and mathematical
topics, whereas children with MLD (Math Learning Disability) often have severe deficits
in some of these areas and average or better in others. The result of averaging across
items that assess these different competencies is a level of performance that overestimates
the competencies of children with MLD in some areas and underestimates them in others.
(Geary, 2004, p.5)
Further indicative of the debate are the false identifications of young children with
learning disabilities that may result from the use of formal assessment tools. Fuchs et al. (2007)
pointed to both false positives and false negatives that can occur with the use of formal
assessments in young children, noting the stress that false positives can place on school resources
and the reduced effectiveness of prevention in the case of false negatives.
With the arguments for and against formally assessing kindergarten children, the question
becomes a matter of determining whether the strengths of identification in kindergarten children
outweigh these weaknesses. Ideally, the definition of mathematical disability would be clear and
universally agreed upon, all children would develop at the same rate and enter kindergarten with
equal exposure to and experience with math and a fool-proof assessment tool would exist to
accurately diagnose mathematical learning disabilities. Regrettably, this is not reality. The use of
formal assessment tools to diagnose mathematical learning disabilities in the first year of
schooling will likely always be the subject of some controversy. Yet, it would be unwise to

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conclude that the presence of challenges indicates that their use is not worthwhile. As in any
assessment decision, it is imperative that assessment tools are chosen carefully, matching the
purpose for which it is intended, to ensure it is of benefit to the child and developmentally
appropriate (Shepard, 1994). It is not the purpose of current research to suggest that formal
assessment tools should be used with all kindergarten students all of the time, nor is it suggested
that formal assessment tools are the only method through which to obtain data regarding a child’s
learning. Rather, in conjunction with other measures, formal assessments provide one piece of
the learning picture, providing often relevant norm-based data and informing the decision
making process. Alternative measures proposed in the research include curriculum-based
measures which have been proven to predict risk for learning disabilities as well as more
complex and time consuming norm-referenced instruments (Lembke & Foegen, 2009). Similarly,
teacher ratings have also been shown to predict children’s future difficulty in mathematics,
particularly when used with additional measures (Teisel, Mazzocco & Myers, 2001). Significant
in the research, is the need for further study of learning disabilities in the area of mathematics, to
further seek development of a universally acceptable definition of mathematical learning
disabilities, to clearly identify the core deficits and predictors associated and to develop a
diagnostic instrument that will effectively measure the development of mathematical knowledge
in young children (Fuchs et al., 2007; Geary, 2004; Jordan, Kaplan, Nabors & Locuniak , 2006;
Morgan, Farkas & Wu, 2009; Teisel, Mazzocco & Myers, 2001 .
If formal assessments are to be used then, in the determination of a mathematical learning
disability, the question remains, is kindergarten too early? There is no doubt that the question of
when to assess is a difficult one. It is not an exact science and there is no crystal ball.

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Professionals are asked to identify young children, whose rate of development is characterized
by vast discrepancies, against uncertain criteria that may predict learning problems that will
likely inhibit success in mathematics. While some children, with effective teaching will make
significant gains in their learning, other will not. It is necessary for practitioners to consider all
pieces of information available and determine, on an individual basis, whether formal assessment
will be beneficial for the child at this point in their learning. With this consideration in the
forefront as well the positive effects that early diagnosis and intervention can have on a child’s
academic success, the question now becomes, why would we wait to intervene if formal
assessment date will assist in planning for a child’s success? If a positive and proactive approach
to supporting children is the belief, then the use of formal assessment tools to assess and
diagnose mathematical learning disabilities in kindergarten children is an essential piece of
information that will inform practitioners in making sound educational decisions for children.

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