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Tex. Board Softens Rules on Retention Before 1st Grade

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To accommodate parents seeking alternatives for children they feel need more time to mature before entering the 1st grade, the Texas Board of Education has softened its groundbreaking policy barring retention in prekindergarten and kindergarten.

The rule, adopted by the board last summer, was considered the strongest step taken by a state to stop schools from holding back children to ensure their "readiness" for the 1st grade. (See Education Week, Aug. 1, 1990.)

In most cases, the children who were held back were placed in "transitional" classes that added an extra year to their schooling either before kindergarten or the 1st grade.

As school reforms nationwide have raised academic standards in the 1st grade and kindergarten, many districts have launched such programs for children whose birthdays fall close to the cutoff date for school entry or who are deemed developmentally immature.

While such classes are designed to offer more hands-on learning and opportunities for slower children to develop at their own pace, critics maintain they offer no lasting benefits and may unfairly stigmatize or segregate young children.

The rule the board passed last summer was largely an effort to discourage such programs, which the Texas Education Agency said it considered tantamount to retention.

Swayed by "hundreds" of parents who contended that their children had benefited or could gain from the extra year, however, the board last month revised its policy, said Geraldine Miller, chairman of the board's committee on students and a supporter of the rule change.

The new rule--adopted on a 9-to-5 vote--still disallows retention in pre-K and kindergarten, inserting the words "without parental consent."

In addition, it states that, "with parental consent, 6-year-old students determined by the school not to be developmentally ready for 1st grade may be assigned to a grade as deemed appropriate by the school.''

To deter districts from placing children in such programs too readily, however, the new rule bars more than one retention between pre-K and 4th grade--except in "exceptional cases" and with the approval of the parent and a panel of teachers and administrators.

It also encourages districts to provide "developmentally appropriate instruction for all student populations."

While the earlier rule was intended to discourage transition programs, the practical effect of requiring parental consent for retentions below the 1st grade is to gain support for maintaining such programs for parents who favor them.

Despite "plenty of information and documentation" casting doubt on such programs, "public and parental input was unbelievable," said Cami Jones, director of prekindergarten and kindergarten programs for the tea

"Those of us who know, through counseling, that our children need an extra year of kindergarten are being forced to pay for a year of private kindergarten in order to circumvent the rule," one parent wrote in a letter to the board.

Board members backing the change recognize the "need to back off and create a more developmentally appropriate curriculum" in kindergarten and the 1st grade, Ms. Miller said, but felt the original rule was ''putting the cart before the horse."

"The dilemma is that, if there is no transitional grade for those children, they start their entire school life on a very bad foot," said Michael Arthur, a family physician with two sons who he said went on from transition programs to become "leaders in their class."

But Jack Christie, a board member who opposed the change, said it could be "taken advantage of for intellectual advantage, athletic advantage, and parental preference."

In some districts, he said, up to 27 percent of 1st graders are over age for their grade--a figure he said is out of line with the percent who would be expected to be intellectually or socially immature.

"A lot of research shows those inequities iron out by 3rd grade anyway," he added.

Mary Martin Patton, who conducted a study on transition classes for her dissertation at the University of Texas at Austin, said 39 percent of the 285 districts she surveyed offered transition programs, and that the majority planned to maintain or expand them.

Ms. Patton said the retention rates for districts with such classes were 8 percent higher than those without them, and that the majority had a disproportionate share of males and minorities, raising thespecter of "gender and ethnic bias."

She warned that some parents may be pressured to enroll children on the basis of tests not considered reliable predictors of future success. In her study, 25 different tests were used in placement decisions.

"I don't think the parents [backing the rule change] represented the majority of the children who are being affected by it," Ms. Patton said.

Ms. Jones of the tea said most of the reaction came from parents in areas where the programs are geared toward the "bright, developmentally unready child"--rather than from poorer areas where they provide "mini-1st-grade basic-skills reinforcement" and often serve large numbers of at-risk children.

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