Zack's parents have decided to hold him out of kindergarten. They plan to voluntarily delay starting school even though Zack is a normally developing five-year-old who meets his state's kindergarten age requirement. Zack's parents believe that being one of the youngest children in his class would put Zack at an academic disadvantage. They believe that by delaying kindergarten one year Zack will have a greater chance to be successful in school.
Right or wrong, Zack's parents are not alone in their thinking. Kindergarten children are older than they used to be. Nationally, nine percent of all children wait out a year before kindergarten. If we look just at children born in the last half of the year that percentage jumps to 11 percent for children born in the third quarter of the year (Zill, Spencer-Loomis, & West, 1997). Most often held-out children are Caucasian, male, born in the second half of the year, and come from rather affluent homes.
Do Children Who Are Held Out From Kindergarten Do Better in School?
Results of research studies have been mixed. Some studies have reported an advantage and other studies have reported no difference in achievement. The research has been difficult to interpret because a) state cut-off dates vary making the youngest children in some studies older than the youngest children in other studies; b) the research varies in quality; and c) until recently only rather small scale studies of limited numbers of children and limited geographic regions had been conducted.
Some researchers have concluded that the evidence does not support holding children out of kindergarten. The child's age upon entering kindergarten does not affect the child's academic achievement (Narahara, 1998). Both younger and older children make a year's progress. At the end of first grade children who had been held out from kindergarten made the same progress as younger children who had entered kindergarten the first year they were age-eligible (Morrison, Griffith, & Alberts, 1997). Achievement differences were due to starting age difference. To understand the study, think about two airplanes flying west. Both travel at the same speed. However, one airplane takes off from New York City and the other takes off from Chicago. The planes will cover the same number of miles in the same amount of time, but the plane from Chicago will always be farther ahead because it started ahead.
Nevertheless, there is some conflicting research. Achievement test scores of children who were held out of kindergarten were compared to scores of children the same age who were not held out. The held out children scored higher when they were in fifth grade (Crosser, 1991). In this case, we have our two airplanes flying the same number of hours after take-off. We measure how far each plane traveled. We find that the airplane representing children who delayed kindergarten traveled farther than the airplane representing children who entered kindergarten on time.
How Can Zack's Parents Know Whether or Not They are Making the Right Decision?
They can't. Based on the available knowledge, there is no clear-cut answer. The conflicting results of small-scale studies do little to help parents and teachers make decisions for children. Two recent studies have been conducted by the United States Department of Education in an effort to shed some light on the kindergarten entrance age question.
How Are the New Studies Different?
Both of the new studies are based on large, representative samples of kindergarteners. For example, using information from the 1993 and 1995 rounds of the National Household Education Survey (NHES) the National Center for Education Statistics produced a report which examined the school performance of children who delayed kindergarten entrance (Zill, et al, 1997). While the study is helpful because it included a large sample of children, the results are not definitive because school performance was measured subjectively. That is, parents and teachers of first- and second-graders were asked to tell what they knew or believed about the school performance of the children. Questions were very general such as, "Has the teacher/school said the child is having schoolwork problems?" Of course the perceptions and memories of parents and teachers may or may not have been accurate.
Assuming the Parents and Teachers Reported Accurately, Did the Held Out Children Do Better in First and Second Grade?
In the 1995 survey there was no significant indication that children who were held out a year achieved differently from children who were not held out. In the 1993 survey parents reported that held-out children had fewer negative comments from teachers.
Were There Other Differences?
There were two. First, children who delayed entrance were less likely than others to have failed a grade. There are several possible explanations for this. Older children may have achieved successfully. Or, perhaps the older children were less likely to be retained because they were already over age for grade level.
The second research finding revealed that academically, delayed children perform as well as children who did not delay. Naturally we would expect the older children to do as well as younger if there were no developmental reasons for waiting the extra year. While the study provided data from a large, representative sample, it provided little practical evidence useful for making decisions about entrance age. The general nature of the questions and lack of objective ways to measure academic achievement were disappointing.
Are Other Studies Being Conducted?
In an ongoing national study of kindergarteners and their schools, researchers are following 22,000 members of the kindergarten class of 1998 through fifth grade. In the initial report, America's Kindergarteners, we find some potential for insight into the kindergarten entrance age question (West, Denton, & Germino-Hausken, 2000). Children were tested the fall of 1998 when they first entered kindergarten. The older children scored higher on reading, math, and general knowledge as would be expected simply as a function of age. Both parents and teachers reported that older, held out children were able to persist at tasks for longer periods of time than younger children. This, too, should be expected due to differences in developmental ages.
Were There Differences in Achievement?
At the end of the kindergarten year, both held-out children and on time children made a year's growth. Both groups made the same gain, but because the older children started ahead, they also ended the year ahead. (Remember the airplanes?) Because the study is tracking children over a number of years eventually any lasting correlation between school success and kindergarten entrance age.
How Can I Follow the Study as Children Move Through the Grades?
Both full reports and summaries of findings can be accessed online at www.nces.ed.gov. Documents can also be ordered by telephone by calling 1-877-4ED-PUBS.
What Advice Can Teachers Give Parents About Delaying Kindergarten for Their Children?
Teachers need to be knowledgeable about the research and forthright in telling parents that we do not know if it is wise to hold out young children. It would be less than professional to advise parents one way or another based on limited and inconclusive findings. The wise teacher could point out to parents that academic achievement is only part of the puzzle. We also need to consider the social and emotional effects of being the youngest or oldest in a class. We need to consider the child's physical status, too. If the child is particularly large or small for his age how will he feel about himself this year, a year from now, five years from now? In making the decision, it is important for parents to consider the type of kindergarten program and academic expectations the child will face. If the program is developmental with individualized curriculum, the child will be more likely to succeed than if he is placed in a program emphasizing whole group instruction, sitting still for long periods of time and doing worksheets.
How Does the Trend to Hold Out Children Affect Kindergarten?
Kindergarten expectations have changed as academics have filtered down from first grade. For over a decade child advocates have been warning about kindergarten curriculum becoming developmentally inappropriate (Elkind, 1986, Spodek, 1985; Bredekamp & Shepard, 1989). Children have been expected to adapt to whatever is demanded of them. When they cannot adapt, we start doing things to them—putting in readiness kindergarten or transition classes, and even repeating (failing) grades. None of these remedies help. All of these remedies hurt (Smith & Shepard, 1987).
When teachers see older children succeeding with an academic curriculum and younger children struggling with the same content and expectations, it is understandable that teachers would consider the younger children unready to learn. Compared to children who are a year older, it appears that young children who start kindergarten shortly after their birthday are deficient and could benefit from an additional year to mature before starting school. Rather than considering the child to be at fault for not fitting in, wouldn't it be wiser of us to figure out how to make the expectations and curriculum suited to the child's developmental level and needs? If we combine the nine to 13 percent of held-out children with the five to six percent of kindergarten children who are a year over age because they are repeating kindergarten (Zill et al, 1997) we find that nationally the system is not working for 14-19 percent of all kindergarten children. If parents feel they must protect their children by excluding them from school we should probably take a look at what we are doing in those schools.
Sandra Crosser, Ph.D., is a professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.
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