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Legislatures, Districts Move to Raise Age For Kindergarten

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Responding to concerns that the failure rate among kindergarten students may be rising, a growing number of state legislatures and school districts are requiring that children start school at a later age.

Proponents of the move argue that older children are better prepared--cognitively, emotionally, socially, and physically--to meet the requirements of curricula that have become more structured and demanding during the school-improvement movement of the 1980's.

"The demands in school are increasing tremendously,'' says Charlotte Garman, an education consultant for the Pennsylvania Association of Public School Principals. "Schools have begun to say either they will have to lighten up on the curriculum or raise the age'' for school entrance.

State and district proposals to raise the entrance age have gained momentum from a number of recent studies reinforcing the widespread impression among educators that children who begin school at a later age attain higher achievement levels than their younger classmates.

In an article published last November in Educational Leadership, the journal of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Lorrie Shepard and Mary Lee Smith summarize these studies as noting that "children who are youngest in their class are more likely to repeat a grade, to be referred to special education, and to be labeled as learning disabled.''

But Ms. Shepard and Ms. Smith, professors of education at the University of Colorado and Arizona State University, respectively, maintain that "raising the entrance age is a temporary solution to a problem that is relative rather than absolute.''

Instead, they argue, educators should come up with programs "that respond to children's individual differences in readiness.''

State Activity

As a result of recent actions in several state legislatures, the age at which children can enroll in kindergarten has already been increased, or will be raised over the next several years. For example:

  • In Indiana, state lawmakers last month passed a bill mandating that, beginning in 1988, the cutoff date for enrolling in kindergarten be pushed back one month each year until it reaches June 1 in 1992. Currently, districts set their own cutoff dates.

According to Imogene Jones, the assistant superintendent from Portage Township, Ill., who helped write the legislation, the decision to raise the entry age was based mainly on the fact "that kids who are older succeed much better'' in school.

Because the kindergarten curriculum includes more academic components than it did a few years ago, she says, younger children are finding it increasingly difficult to succeed in the classroom.

"Those of us who have been around a long time have seen the stress'' among the children, says Ms. Jones. "We're expecting more of young children in terms of reading and writing.''

"Intellectually, they are fine, but socially, emotionally, and physically, they're not ready.''

  • In Oregon, the legislature approved a measure last month requiring that children entering kindergarten be 5 years old on or before Sept. 1, effectively pushing back the cutoff date a month.

The state will not begin requiring that districts offer kindergarten classes until 1989. And before passage of last month's legislation there was no law stipulating a cutoff date for such programs.

But entrance into kindergarten had been dictated, to a great extent, by the age at which children could enroll in the 1st grade. The cutoff date for 1st grade was also changed to Sept. 1 by the legislation. It had been Oct. 1. For the 1985-86 school year, it was Nov. 15.

  • In Virginia, beginning in the fall of 1988, students must turn 5 by Sept. 30 to enter kindergarten.

In addition to pushing back the cutoff date from Dec. 31, the legislature voted two years ago to encourage districts to consider creating extra, or transitional, grades for students in the early elementary-school years.

According to John Galloway, director of non-instructional personnel for the Chesterfield County (Va.) Public Schools, the action was prompted by the state's 20 percent failure rate among kindergarten and 1st-grade pupils--evidence, lawmakers and educators said, that students "were not prepared to do the more academic things that are required in the classroom.''

  • In Missouri, children entering kindergarten this fall must turn 5 by July 1. Before 1985, when the legislature passed a measure pushing the date back one month a year until it reached July 1, children could enter kindergarten if their fifth birthday came before Oct. 1.
  • And in Illinois, students will have to be 5 by Oct. 1 this year and by Sept. 1 next year to enter kindergarten. The state's cutoff date, which has been pushed back one month a year since legislation was passed three years ago, was Dec. 1.

Educators pushed for the change, says Rosemary Gray, assistant manager for research and evaluation for the state board of education, because they found that younger children entering kindergarten "were not as successful'' as those who were older.

The younger children, she says, have difficulty adjusting to the classroom environment, and some experience such side effects as nervous indigestion because of their inability to cope.

District Activity

In the states in which districts can set their own cutoff dates, officials say that several school systems have recently raised their entry ages.

In Boston, for example, students wishing to enroll in the first of the system's two years of kindergarten must be 4 years old by Sept. 1. The cutoff date was changed in a vote last month by the school committee; previously, it had been Dec. 31.

A similar change was adopted for "kindergarten II,'' the second year of the program. Now, students must be 5 by Sept. 1, instead of Dec. 31, to enroll.

Many teachers noticed that children were not "developmentally ready to handle the programs,'' says Ian Forman, public-information officer for the Boston public schools.

He notes that the school committee's decision simply returns the cutoff ages to where they were prior to 1981. The age requirement had been lowered in response to pressure from parents eager to get their children into school as early as possible, he says.

More Stringent Curriculum

Many experts in the field of early-childhood education and development say that the tougher kindergarten curriculum is a primary reason why younger children are having trouble in class.

In many districts, they say, kindergartners now do work that until recently was reserved for the first grade.

"We are in a hurry-up society,'' says Barbara Willer, information-services director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington. "We have realized kids are much more capable of learning than we've ever realized, [so] we have taken a curriculum for dealing with older kids and instituted it en masse for younger kids.''

Because more and more children enter kindergarten with at least a year of preschool behind them, says Samuel Meisels, professor of education at the University of Michigan, school officials have felt compelled to make kindergarten more challenging.

Nationwide, more than 50 percent of 4 year olds are estimated to be in some kind of educational setting.

In addition, says Ms. Garman, districts are responding to the criticism of "everybody in America,'' including educators and policymakers, that schools have done an inadequate job of preparing students for their place in the nation's fast-changing economy.

The demanding curricula imposed on kindergarten and 1st-grade children, she says, "are ridiculous.''

"If you are talking about getting kids ready to cram information into their heads, they won't be any more ready if they start later.''

Among the most vocal proponents of rigorous kindergarten curricula, Ms. Shepard says, are parents, who often demand that reading be a more integral part of instruction.

In fact, she says, many parents choose to keep their children at home or in preschool longer than districts require, so that when they do enter kindergarten "they will be at the top of their class.''

In some districts, Mr. Meisels notes, the trend toward make the kindergarten curriculum more difficult has resulted from a desire to better prepare students for tests given in the later grades.

Retention Rates

Officials in several of the states and districts that have raised the kindergarten entrance age say that the actions were prompted by concerns that an increasing number of pupils in kindergarten and the early elementary-school grades were being retained.

The evidence to support such a view is mostly anecdotal, they add, noting that the pertinent statistics are generally not compiled or collected by one agency.

In Indiana, for example, schools combine their data on failure rates to include all grade levels before submitting the figures to the state education department. And the Illinois Department of Education does not maintain records on retention rates; they are kept by the school districts.

A few studies on school retention have demonstrated, however, that a higher percentage of children who start school earlier are more likely to be held back than those who start school a few months older.

A 1984 study of 1,600 elementary-school children who had been retained in Vigo County, Ind., found that, over a five-year period, children who started school earlier were more likely to be held back a grade, according to Carolyn Davidson, a school psychologist for the Covered Bridge Special Education District in Indiana.

Slightly more than 18 percent of the oldest children in the elementary schools--those born in October, November, and December--were retained, Ms. Davidson says, while about 34 percent of the youngest children--those born in July, August, and September--were held back. The district's cutoff date was Sept. 30.

The study also found that children born in January, February, and March had a 21 percent chance of failing, while those born in April, May, and June had a 26.5 percent retention rate.

In Boston, the decision to raise the entrance age for kindergarten was a direct result of the system's high retention rate for 1st graders--more than 20 percent in each of the past two years, according to Joelle Camayd Frexias, director of research and development for the district.

"It is the school committee's opinion that raising the entrance age will help alleviate the problem,'' he says, noting that many children enter the 1st grade without having gone to kindergarten, which is not mandatory in the district.

The Arguments

Many educators argue that, in addition to the potential academic difficulties, many of the younger children are not socially or emotionally prepared for the structure of school.

"Research has proven that the maturity of the child is what is important,'' says Don Small, executive director of the Indiana Association of Elementary and Middle School Principals. "A lot of kids weren't making it. They were falling behind in their work.''

Other experts add that many young children may lack the developmental skills needed to function in a classroom environment, such as concentration, motor dexterity, and the ability to sit still and listen and to work with others.

Educators favoring a later entrance age cite studies conducted by the Gesell Institute of Human Development in New Haven, Conn.

The institute is a major proponent of the "developmental'' theory of education, which, it says, "maintains that behavior is a function of structure, and that growth is orderly, structured, and predictable.'' Researchers there hold the view that "children who go to school before they are mature enough to cope may suffer for the rest of their lives for this one mistake in timing.''

The institute recommends that children who are chronologically, but not developmentally, ready to begin school be placed in pre-kindergarten or pre-1st-grade programs, according to Louise Bates Ames, associate director and co-founder of the institute.

According to Ms. Ames, state and district officials are recognizing the benefits of adopting a developmental approach to learning. Policymakers, she says, "are listening to what we're saying.''

Words of Caution

Still, some experts express concerns that some states and districts that have raised the age at which children can enroll in kindergarten have overlooked a fundamental issue: that children develop at different speeds.

Advocates of the developmental theory suggest that merely raising the age requirement for kindergarten will not address the problem of rigid curricula that do not take the individual child into account.

"Educators should ensure that kindergarten programs are meeting children's needs, rather than have children meet the inappropriate needs of programs,'' says Ms. Willer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "Age is an arbitrary cutoff, regardless of where you set it.''

Many children end up having problems in kindergarten, she says, because the programs "have unrealistic expectations of kids.''

Adds Samuel Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals in Alexandria, Va., "Age doesn't reflect maturity.''

Schools need, he says, "to combine preschool programs with kindergarten programs, and individualize instruction to meet the needs of each child.''

In addition, says Jan McCarthy, an early-childhood-education specialist at Indiana State University, kindergarten programs should be nurturing awareness, vocabulary, and other skills through hands-on learning, not "pushing a more difficult curriculum'' that includes formal reading programs and other activities usually reserved for later grades.

The greatest challenge early-childhood specialists face, Ms. Willer says, is to help parents and policymakers "realize education is not always paper and pencil,'' and that young children learn best "with lots of hands-on materials.''

According to Mr. Galloway, of the Chesterfield County, Va., schools, the trend toward raising the entrance age for kindergarten parallels the development in many districts of "extra grades,''such as prekindergarten and "junior kindergarten,'' and pre-1st grade following kindergarten.

Societal trends--such as the increasing number of single-parent families and working mothers, and the growing number of "latchkey'' children--may force more schools to consider these alternative programs, he predicts.

Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, in a report last fall on elementary education, supported experimentation with the ages at which children advance through the lower grades.

"The chronological lockstep by which children ordinarily enter and progress through school should be loosened to provide for differences in children's abilities,'' he wrote in First Lessons: A Report on Elementary Education in America.

"By whatever path her charges arrive at the schoolroom door, a 1st-grade teacher should expect to receive in September a class of boys and girls ready to be intimately acquainted with the 3 R's,'' Mr. Bennett said.

"But we may be better off building in a 'pre-1st' grade transition year for some youngsters, and sending them to 1st grade when they are 7, rather than assuming that every child's greatest need is for organized, cognitive learning at 5.''

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