Last fall results from national math exams stirred up a tempest in a standardized test. It turns out math scores rose more quickly before No Child Left Behind was implemented, and fourth-grade math scores haven’t improved since 2007. As reported in the New York Times, the achievement gap remains a chasm between the haves and the have-nots.

What does this mean for your child? While pundits and politicians battle over the big issues, it’s up to parents to stay on top of the little ones: their own kids’ academic development. Keep tabs on what your kindergartner should learn in math this year with our grade-based milestones. Of course, math curricula still vary widely from state to state as school districts grapple with how to implement the Common Core Standards, so these are merely guidelines. For a better sense of how your child’s schoolwork compares, look up your state’s math standards, see what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics recommends for preschool through high school, or read through the Common Core Standards for math.

In the classroom

What math concepts will your kindergartner learn?

Kindergartners are expected to get an early start on mastering mathematical concepts by playing with blocks, tiles, and other objects that can be counted, classified, and sorted. With an array of objects in hand, kids learn that adding means counting forward and subtracting means counting backward.

Kindergartners also learn how to group objects in a variety of ways — by color, shape, and size — which helps them begin to understand multiplication and fractions.

By practicing counting from one to 10, kindergartners gradually build up their number faculties. By the end of the year, they’ll be expected to count to numbers greater than 10 and to count by fives (5, 10, 15, 20, etc.) and by tens (10, 20, 30, etc.).

Many kindergarten teachers start the day with “calendar time,” teaching concepts of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

From fractions to geometry

Kindergartners will also be introduced to simple fractions and geometry. A teacher might ask students to count the number of slices in a pizza or ask them to identify shapes in the classroom like circles, squares, triangles, and rectangles.

“Math at this time in a child’s life is full of explorations both in and outside the classroom,” explains Nicola Salvatico, the 2005 Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year. “Taking advantage of real-life connections helps a child move from the concrete to the abstract facets of learning math.”

Getting acquainted with measurement, money, and time

Your child’s teacher is likely to introduce the class to thinking about money, time, and measurement. Don’t expect a kindergartner to use tools like rulers; instead, kids learn about distance by using their hands and feet as a basis for measurement. For example, they might be asked to compare the number of steps it takes to walk to the reading corner with the number required to reach the drinking fountain.

Kindergartners also pick up a few money skills and should be able to identify and count coins, including pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. To help children learn about capital, some classrooms might have a play store set up with toy cash registers (for a popular model, see “Top-10 Educational Toys“) chock-full of play money.

Kids at this age begin learning about time by working with analog and digital clocks. Students should be able to identify the big hand and little hand on an analog clock, tell time to the hour, and understand that when the big hand is on the 12, it means “o’clock.”

What types of math instruction will your child get?

Kindergarten teachers typically teach kids using objects, not just paper-and-pencil assignments. Children are introduced to concepts by watching the teacher, then following up with hands-on activities and games that allow them to work individually or cooperatively in groups. By introducing concepts and repeating them throughout the year, teachers help students master early math tasks.

Concepts are more important than math facts

While some kindergartners can memorize specific addition and subtraction facts, like 2 + 2 = 4, it’s important for them to grasp the concepts first.

“It’s like walking,” says Salvatico. “They need to develop the skills of walking first before they can actually do it, and it’s different for each child.”

What to look for when you visit

  • Blocks, bottle caps, dice, and other objects of different shapes and sizes for sorting and counting
  • Students, alone or in small groups, working with these objects
  • Graphs depicting the students’ birthdays or their favorite foods
  • Pictures of geometric shapes such as circles, squares, and triangles