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Va. Bill Would Set Two-Tiered Entry-Age Policy for School

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To gain support for a proposal to raise the kindergarten-entry age for most pupils, the Virginia legislature is eyeing an unusual policy that would permit younger children to enter school in districts that offer two-year kindergartens or serve large numbers of disadvantaged students.

The measure, which passed the House this month and was to be considered by a Senate panel this week, is believed to be the first state effort to set a differential entry-age policy for pupils considered at risk of failure.

While the House approved the bill by a wide margin, however, its fate in the Senate, which has resisted some efforts to alter entry-age rules in the past, was unclear last week.

Other states in recent years have set new entry-age standards in response to concerns that increasingly demanding curricula in the early4grades were driving up kindergarten failure rates.

The Virginia proposal is unique, however, in that it recognizes differences in the school-readiness of disadvantaged pupils--and disadvantages that may come from delaying their entry to school.

Proponents argue that the measure would increase the likelihood that children enter kindergarten mature enough to handle the curriculum, while also allowing younger at-risk pupils to benefit from "junior" or pre-kindergarten programs that provide a transitional year of developmental experiences.

The plan "allows these children to be held back for a year" from overly academic programs and "encourages schools who do not have a dual kindergarten to do it," said State Delegate James H. Dillard, the bill's sponsor and ranking Republican on the House education panel. "We came up with the best of all possible worlds."

But the proposal runs counter to recommendations of the state education department, which supports a uniform cutoff date for school entry, but has advised scrapping transitional kindergartens and 1st grades.

The agency has also recommended retaining the current entry-age rules until programs for at-risk 4-year-olds are available statewide, and making all kindergarten classes "developmental programs that recognize varying patterns and rates of individual development."

National early-childhood experts also have discouraged the use of transitional classes, saying they may unwittingly segregate pupils or stigmatize them as early failures.

"The research nationally shows these programs are not positive," said Helen M. Kelley, associate director of elementary education for the Virginia education department. "I don't think that ever entered into their discussions."

Those who support moving kindergarten entry ages forward say physically and emotionally immature children are likely to fail or become disenchanted if they are placed in overly rigorous programs.

"If we're putting on the shoulders of a 5-year-old things they are not capable of doing, we're inviting them to fail," said Carol Johnson, a South Dakota representative who sponsored an unsuccessful bill that would have moved that state's kindergarten cutoff date from Sept. 1 to June 1.

If children "get turned off at a very early age, they may never get turned back on," she said.

To allay such fears, 7 states have set new cutoff dates for kindergarten entry since 1985, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The dates on which children must turn age 5 to enter school range from July 1 in Missouri to Dec. 31 in three states and the District of Columbia. The most common cutoff date is between Sept. 1 and Oct. 1.

In six states that give districts the option of setting their own age standards, entry dates range from Sept. 1 to Dec. 31. Six states allow districts to admit children early based on readiness assessments.

But the special exceptions granted under the Virginia proposal highlight what experts describe as a "new wave" of debate over how to ensure that all children enter school prepared without widening the readiness gap among pupils of differing socioeconomic levels.

In the previous wave, said Barbara A. Willer, a spokesman for the n.a.e.y.c., "there was less concern about the question of access."

Virginia has altered its age-entry rules several times in the last two decades. In 1973, lawmakers shifted the cutoff from Sept. 30 to Dec. 31 in response to data showing that more children could gain from "rich educational experiences ... as early as possible," according to the education department.

In 1985, the legislature reverted to the Sept. 30 cutoff to address educators' concern that the "downward thrust of the 1st-grade curriculum" was placing undue pressures on younger children. But a clause was added giving districts the option to admit children whose 5th birthdays fall before Dec. 31 if parents request.

The education department and sponsors of the current proposal argue that the three-month leeway period generally has worked in favor of delaying school entry, and that a lack of uniformity in district policies has created problems for children who move between districts.

The bill now pending in the legislature would phase in a mandatory Sept. 30 cutoff over three years, but includes the amendment on at-risk pupils.

Backed by the House's Black Caucus, the measure is designed to address concern that disadvantaged children whose parents cannot afford preschool will face even greater barriers to success if they are kept out of school an extra year.

State Delegate William P. Robinson Jr., who sponsored the amendment, said that without it,"there would be a disincentive to districts who offer special programs for kids at risk to continue those programs."

The bill narrowly passed on its first reading, but cleared the House by a vote of 92 to 5 with the amendment.

It would give districts where at least 25 percent of pupils qualify for free or reduced-price lunches the option to admit children early.

In addition, those that operate junior- or pre-kindergarten programs could admit children whose 5th birthdays precede Dec. 31 "after an appropriate readiness evaluation."

According to the state education department, 25 districts now offer junior kindergartens and 32 offer transitional 1st grades.

While proponents maintain that transitional classes reduce the risk of failure for immature children, critics say they offer little long-term benefit.

Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of education at the University of Colorado who has studied the effects of kindergarten retention, said a synthesis of 16 controlled studies shows "essentially no benefit from the extra year and some harm to self-esteem and social-emotional adjustment."

"Our concern with transition classes is that they tend to be populated by children of disadvantage and tend to become a classroom of children labeled as not ready now or ever," added Ms. Willer.

Exempting districts with transition programs from the Sept. 30 cutoff date will not expand school access for 4-year-olds, Ms. Kelley argued, since those programs in many cases serve 5-year-olds deemed unready for the regular program.

"The bill would have you believe these programs are for at-risk 4-year-olds," she said, "and that's not the way it has worked out."

In less affluent areas, she said, poor and minority pupils may be overrepresented in such programs--even when "age-eligible" for kindergarten--due to readiness assessments.

While acknowledging this possibility, State Delegate Mary T. Christian argued that "the preparation, care, and nurturing" offered in successful transition programs is "far better than leaving them in an atmosphere devoid of any kind of stimulation."

It is "unrealistic," Mr. Dillard added, to assume "all you have to do is have the curriculum meet kids' needs and no kid will fail."

"When you have 60 kids a day in a split kindergarten, are you going to have an individual program? It's not going to happen," he said. "That's why dual kindergartens, where one can be developmental and one can be academic, make sense."

He cites a 1984 study of more than 400 Fairfax County, Va., students showing those who entered school at younger ages "experienced disproportionally more academic failure" throughout the elementary grades.

But Ms. Shepard said that a synthesis of research on the "age effect" nationally and abroad shows that the disparities in the progress of older and younger pupils are small and generally disappear by 3rd grade.

Critics of shifting entrance dates also say mandating an older entry age simply will force schools to accelerate the kindergarten curriculum.

"The more you fiddle with this and permit older children to get in,'' Ms. Kelley said, "the more likely it is that you will shift the standard" for what pupils can do and regard those who fare poorly "as problems."

"Unless you believe in some kind of transformation" that occurs at a specific age, raising the entry age will create "a new youngest group at risk," Ms. Shepard said.

Lawmakers who defeated the bill to raise South Dakota's entry age recognized "that this was a short-term fix," said Margaret Shaefer, assistant professor of early-childhood education at the University of South Dakota.

The lack of uniformity among state and local kindergarten entry-age requirements has prompted some to call for a national age-entry policy. In a 1987 publication, for example, the National Education Association backed the notion of having a Sept. 1 cutoff date nationally.

The n.a.e.y.c. has backed off recommending a specific cutoff date, advising policymakers, according to Ms. Willer, "don't mess around with the entry date--fix the curriculum."

But Ms. Shepard maintains that having "an arbitrary cutoff date that everyone follows religiously" creates the fewest disparities.

"It's not that one date has important child-developmental implications," she said, "but for policy reasons, it would just quiet the foolishness."

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