A new study by the Minnesota Department of Education shows that 72 percent of kindergartners were deemed ready for school in fall 2012, up from 60 percent in 2010.

Each year the department assesses school readiness of students during the first eight weeks of kindergarten. The areas of child development examined are physical development, the arts, personal and social development, language and literacy, and mathematical thinking. A student who is considered ready for kindergarten is expected to meet academic targets on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.

State education officials said the results indicate that kindergarten students are benefiting from recent efforts to improve preschool programs in Minnesota.

"Students who have access to high-quality early learning are more likely to start fully prepared and then stay on track academically," said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. "Our focus has been on widening access to high-quality early learning for all kids and aligning those programs with schools. Today's announcement shows that more students are benefiting — and will continue to benefit — from our approach and the investments we are making."

Of the areas tested, students scored the highest in physical development — 73 percent — and lowest in mathematical thinking at 57 percent.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds were less likely to be fully prepared for kindergarten than their peers, according to the Minnesota School Readiness Study.

This year, the Legislature approved $40 million in scholarships for low-income families to access high-quality early learning programs. Scholarships of up to $5,000 will be awarded to families and distributed on a priority basis over the next two years.

The scholarships are expected to cover costs for about 9 percent of eligible families.

Early learning advocates have said the state should fund more scholarships in the future to ensure that more students have opportunities to access quality preschool programs.

If that happens, more students will be prepared for kindergarten and less likely to fall behind in school.

"We are thrilled to see more children than ever before who are starting kindergarten with the skills they need to be successful in school," said Barbara Yates, president and chief executive officer of Think Small, one of the grant administrators. "The results released today show that Minnesota is on the right path for improving learning outcomes for children in our state."

A total of 7,539 kindergartners were included in the study, which has been conducted in Minnesota since 2002.

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469