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MATHEMATICAL DIFFICULTIES IN KINDERGARTEN

**The Use of Formal Assessment Tools to Determine Mathematical Difficulties in Kindergarten
**

Amy Donovan

University of Calgary

**THE USE OF FORMAL ASSESSMENT TOOLS TO DETERMINE MATHEMATICAL
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DIFFICULTIES IN KINDERGARTEN

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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

**THE USE OF FORMAL ASSESSMENT TOOLS TO DETERMINE MATHEMATICAL
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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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References

Clarke, B., & Shinn, M. (2004). A Preliminary Investigation Into the Identification and

Development of Early Mathematics Curriculum-Based Measurement. School Psychology

Review, 33, 234-248. Retrieved from:

https://www.aimsweb.com/uploads/news/id34/06.clarkshinn.pdf

Fuchs, L.S., Fuchs, D., Compton, D.L., Bryant, J.D., Hamlett, C. L., Seethaler, P.M. (2007).

Mathematics Screening and Progress Monitoring at First Grade: Implications for

Response to Intervention. Exceptional Children, 73 (3), 311-330. Retrieved from:

http://kesem.beitberl.ac.il/UploadFiles/4FF78031269/fuch_mathematics_screening(2).pdf

Geary, D.C. (2004). Mathematics and Learning Disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37,

4-15. doi: 10.1177/00222194040370010201

Gersten, R., Jordan, N.C., & Flojo, J.R. (2005). Early Identification and Interventions for

Students With Mathematics Difficulties. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38, 293-304.

doi: 10.1177/00222194050380040301

Hallahan, D.P., Lloyd, J.W., Kauffman, J.M., Weiss, M.P., & Martinez, E.A. (2005). Students

Who Experience Difficulties With Mathematics. In Learning Disabilities: Foundations,

Characteristics, and Effective Teaching (pp.451-497). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.

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**Jordan, N.C., Kaplan, D., Nabors Olah, L., & Locuniak, M. (2006). Number Sense Growth in
**

Kindergarten: A Longitudinal Investigation of Children at Risk for Mathematics

Difficulties. Child Development, 77, 153-175. doi:

Lembke, E., & Foegen, A. (2009). Identifying Early Numeracy Indicators for Kindergarten and

First-Grade Students. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 24 (1), 12-20.

Locuniak, M.N., & Jordan, N.C. (2008). Using Kindergarten Number Sense to Predict

Calculation Fluency in Second Grade. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 41, 451-459.

doi:10. 1177/0022219408321126

Mazzocco, M.M., & Myers, G. (2003). Complexities in Identifying and Defining Mathematics

Learning Disability in the Primary School-Age Years. Annals of Dyslexia, 53, 218-253.

Mazocco, M.M., & Thompson, R. E. (2005). Kindergarten Predictors of Math Learning

Disability. Learning Disability Research & Practice, 20, 142- 155. Retrieved from:

Mazzocco, M.M. (2005). Challenges of Identifying Target Skills for Math Disability Screening

and Intervention. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38, 318-323. doi:

10.1177/00222194050380040701

McLoughlin, J.A., & Lewis, R.B. (2008). Mathematics. In Assessing Students With Special

Needs (pp.360- 397). New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Morgan, P., Farkas, G., & Wu, Q. (2009). Five Year Growth Trajectories of Kindergarten

Children with Learning Difficulties in Mathematics. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 42,

306-321. doi: 10.1177/0022219408331037

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**Shepard, L.A. (1994). The Challenges of Assessing Young Children Appropriately. The Phi
**

Delta Kappan, 76, 206-212. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20405297

Stock, P., Desoete, A., & Roeyers, H. (2010). Detecting Children With Arithmetic Disabilities

From Kindergarten: Evidence From a 3-Year Longitudinal Study on the Role of

Preparatory Arithmetic Abilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 43, 250-268. doi:

10.1177/0022219409345011

Teisl, J.T., Mazzocco, M.M., & Myers, G.F. (2001). The Utility of Kindergarten Teacher Ratings

For Predicting Low Academic Achievement in First Grade. Journal of Learning

Disabilities, 34, 286-293. doi: 10.1177/002221940103400308

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