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Texas Board Votes To Forbid Retention Before the 1st Grade

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In a move characterized by experts as the strongest step taken by a state to stop schools from holding children back an extra year to ensure their "readiness" for 1st grade, the Texas Board of Education has voted unanimously to bar districts from retaining pupils in prekindergarten and kindergarten.

Buttressing that move will be a letter officials of the Texas Education Agency are currently drafting, which will advise school districts that transitional classes adding an extra year to children's schooling before 1st grade are tantamount to retention.

Both the rule and the accompanying letter may be sent to districts as early as this week, officials said.

Victoria Bergin, deputy commissioner for curriculum of the TEA, said agency officials recognized the merits of approaches used in transitional classrooms, but concluded after grappling with the issue that "when you are talking about something that takes another year, it constitutes retention, no matter how you look at it."

Being over age in grade, she added, is one of the strongest predictors of dropping out of school.

The board recognized, Ms. Bergin said, that children placed in transition programs between prekindergarten or kindergarten and the 1st grade are "placed in jeopardy of being over age in the 1st grade simply by virtue of the fact that they enrolled in those programs."

"It would be wrong to hold them back in kindergarten when [state] law says they can enter at [age] 6," added the board's chairman, Monte Hasie.

Said Cami Jones, director of prekindergarten and kindergarten programs for the TEA: "We want to give all children an equal chance to make it to the 1st grade."

The rule barring retention takes effect on Sept. 1. Although it is unclear how soon extra-year programs must be phased out, Ms. Bergin said the action would most likely not affect pupils already slated for such programs for the coming year.

Situation 'Out of Hand'

As growing numbers of children enter school at earlier ages and school reform amplifies the pressure on schools to raise test scores, kindergarten and 1st-grade classes nationwide have become increasingly rigorous.

The trend has prompted many schools to retain or delay school entry for pupils deemed immature, or to set up special programs bridging kindergarten and 1st grade.

Backers say such programs offer more hands-on learning and give slower children more time to develop at their own pace before tackling formal academics. But critics cite data showing that the programs offer no lasting benefits and may unfairly label, segregate, or stigmatize children.

When transition programs first surfaced in Texas in the mid-1980's, Ms. Bergin said, "they were doing wonderful things with a very small group of students."

"What alerted us [to a problem]," she said, "was that, two years later, those classrooms had just mushroomed, and we began questioning how there could be so many of these very unique students" who needed more time. She also noted that many of the programs included large numbers of minority children.

Citing "alarming" rates of kindergarten retention nationally, Sue Bredekamp, director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said the Texas board's rule "reflects that state's understanding of a situation that had really gotten out of hand throughout the nation."

But she warned that "for such a policy not to become punitive, you have to have policies that come into play that support efforts to attend to individual differences," such as those providing more individualized instruction and hands-on learning, smaller classes, and more aides.

Because transitional classes often offer a "more appropriate experience for young children," she noted, schools should "take what they have learned from that and infuse it into the regular classroom structure."

Programs defined as transition classes in Texas that offer a "developmentally appropriate" alternative to regular classes without causing children to be held back a year chronologically would still be allowed under the new rule, Ms. Bergin noted.

'Known All Along'

Brenda L. Massey, principal of Denver City (Tex.) Kindergarten, which offers prekindergarten, kindergarten, and transitional kindergarten, voiced concern that the rule could affect "how children feel about themselves" if they "can't do the work" in 1st grade. But she added that children would fare better if 1st-grade teachers received training in "developmentally appropriate practices."

"That would take a lot of pressure off me if they're not going to allow us to retain," she said.

Although no specific guidelines have been set in motion to help districts adjust to the new rule, Ms. Bergin said, "at every step of the way, one of the first things we're going to do" is to try to make training available where it is necessary.

Lorrie Shepard, a University of Colorado researcher who has studied the effects of kindergarten retention, raised the concern that resistant teachers could "maintain a group of transition kids as a separate class, call it 1st grade, and give them a 'dumbed-down' curriculum."

But she voiced hope that for a majority of educators, the Texas rule would help "break the cycle" of curricular practices that she said many teachers acknowledge go "against their own training" in early-childhood education.

"Teachers who have received good training in early-childhood education," said Ms. Bergin, "will now be freed to do the kind of teaching they have known how to do all along."

'Citizens' Action'

Retention data collected by 13 states for the 1985-86 school year, according to Ms. Shepard, revealed kindergarten retention rates ranging from 1.4 percent in Mississippi to 10.5 percent in Florida. But the data may not reflect pupils placed in transitional classes, which have proliferated in recent years, she noted.

Several states in recent years have cut back on testing in the early grades, and some, such as California, have issued reports discouraging retention and transition programs.

In Georgia, the first state to mandate kindergarten testing as a condition for promotion--a policy it later revised--State School Superintendent Werner Rogers said recently that the state should adopt "ungraded primaries" by 1995. Kentucky has mandated that ungraded K-3 programs be phased in by 1992, and Florida is also encouraging such efforts.

Prior to the Texas board's July 14 action, Texas had dropped standardized tests and eliminated numerical grading in 1st grade, Ms. Jones said. The board is also in the process of bolstering its requirements for prekindergarten teachers.

Denver City parents, who took their arguments against transition classes to local and state officials and gained support from national experts, helped bolster support for the anti-retention rule, observers say.

Their work provides "a marvelous example of what citizens' action can bring about," said Harriet A. Egertson, administrator of the Nebraska education department's office of child development.

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